Healthy Me Week!

TVO is celebrating the first Healthy Me Week in Toronto. Check this link to see what’s happening in Toronto between June 4-10.


A Field Trip to the Toronto Zoo

What are these children looking at?

Yes, a tiger! The symbol of power, beauty, and independence. One of the fastest runners on our earth. But an endangered animal which only about 3000 of them are left in the world. I looked at his eyes and I felt a shiver. They told me to respect, to not forget who he is, or perhaps who he was… I remember how much my brother as a young boy loved them, how he knew everything about them, how their pictures were covered the wall of his bedroom … but he never saw one so close when he was a child … he read about them in books, he saw their pictures, and sometimes documentaries about them, in black-white … but he imagined them as wild, brave, and beautiful. In his fantasy they were not for  entertaining humans or raising their pity. Tigers were on our earth to be admired, to be dared to be one, and to hope never face one in a dark jungle …

But today, he’s in a cage in the Toronto Zoo right under the feet of these children. I wonder what they learn about him when seeing him so quiet, so bored, so under control, so inactive, …. To me, he’s just an illusion of what a free tiger is or should be …. What if the image that these children are building today is emphasized by the images that the Disney cartoons are building for them: images of funny, silly, pet-like and humanized tigers?

In my romanticized image of a tiger, I wish Rauz and these children would have never seen him so poor, disengaged, normalized, so un-tiger.

I wonder who is protecting who? Are we really worried about their endangered species? Or are we worried how our earth would be without them? What could then be the symbol of power, beauty, and speed for us? Who or what is replacing them?

A New Life, A Returned Heron, And Our Tangled Lives

Every weekend, we went back to our favorite  trail hoping to see the geese with their babies. Finally, this Sunday we found them on the same pond but this time with their little baby chick. A new life emerged and is developing, a  miracle. We approached them quietly but they were so aware and cautious of their environment that they quickly went into the water. We put some bread for them on the ground hoping to show them that we’re friends. But they didn’t come close to us at all this time. Rauz asked me why and I said perhaps they are worried that we may hurt their baby … now their parents and have a stronger sense of protection. It was surprizing to see how difficult it was to take a picture of the baby chick because he was moving so fast and I couldn’t get a good shot ! Another active baby who desires to explore the richness of a new world inviting him to touch, listen, smell, and taste. Rauz loved to watch how the baby chick was walking behind her mom and pecking for food and I enjoyed noticing how  the chick stayed closer to her mom all the time while the dad was following them from a distance. We were both wondering how the chick would look like when we come back next week.

While Rauz was searching in the bushes far from me, this beautiful heron popped out of his hiding spot. Rauz was surprized by his very quick reaction but then seeing him standing so still right in front of her. She stopped to watch. I took this picture. His color, long neck, and curious and cautious eyes make me think about what he is good at, what role he is playing in this world, in what ways I’m connected to him … Camouflaging is a key ability to survive in the natural environment, to hunt for prey and not be hunted as a prey … How about humans? Do we we camouflage?

This is what Rauz calls a ‘bridge’ and kept asking me to take her to this spot. She was fascinated by how the vines are wrapping around the tree and bending its branches, she couldn’t take for granted the natural design and structure of this ‘bridge’ or arch. She loved to stay under this ‘bridge’ and looking up to see the fresh new leaves. We looked together to see how and if the tree can survive this invasion. It was a young tree and all its main

branches were wrapped and bending down by the weight of the vines. We decided to check this tree again later to see how it looks like in a few months or even years. … our curiosity about things that we’re developing intimate relationship with now gives us reasons to come back … to not forget … to care … to be interested … to wonder.

I looked around myself and was surprized to see how everything in that trail is wrapped and tangled: leaves, branches, bushes, dead trees, soil, broken sticks, weeds, flowers … one may just artificially separate them from the another, but in reality there isn’t any one,  there’re only tangled lives all in a constant struggle to survive, to stay, to become stronger… while one life depends on other’s lives … so symbolic of our humane social lives … we’re wrapped around each other, there’s no one of us .. it’s always us/we. I’m taking with me a question … a quest to know what this piece of nature is telling me.

Children and Photography

Children are curious observers who often see things with fresh eyes, from different perspectives and of course lower heights. Photography is a playful tool to invite them to share with us what they find interesting when in nature.

When we were coming back from school in a warm afternoon, I gave Rauz our small digital camera and invited her to take pictures of anything she liked. She started taking pictures of trees in buds, tiny dandelions, dried leaves on the ground, and bushes. Then she decided to make some arrangements before taking a photo. She put pine cones, big pieces of barks, and leaves on a cut tree trunk and then took pictures. From those pictures, she chose this one and asked me to post it in this blog. I asked her why and she said, “I took this picture because I wanted to see how this pine cone is going to drawn or I wanted to see how this pine cone is going to grow or die next year.”

Rauz gradually became more excited about the experience moving from one flower or tree to another while we were walking. She liked to see the pictures on the camera’s screen right after she took them. I noticed that the experience is challenging her to sit and look carefully at tiny corners, holes, and details that otherwise she would’ve not been very interested in. So on that day, photography became one way to engage with nature and investigate it.

We also became surprised to see how city garbage is tangled with our natural environment. So Rauz also asked me to post this picture and said, “Is this a very nice picture? No! It is not because you see a picture of an old plastic piece of garbage bag.”

She said she wants to go back to this place to see how these things may change in a year.


Where the wild things are!

There is a trail close to our home, where we go for biking, walking, and playing tennis, a familiar environment … in the middle of our big city … where nature is fighting with the city pollution here and there … where the birds and the river are competing with the noise of  a huge train passing every 10 to 15 minutes.

It`s always a different experience when we go for a quiet wandering and wondering walk, we slow down and we go left and right, pause, touch and feel … that`s when I feel I`m able to deeply connect to the natural environment … when Rauz has the time and space to encounter surprises, throw stones in the river, pick sticks, walk on the dry leaves, spy ducks, and breathe in the fresh air …

On one of our quiet walks, we see the geese who are just back to our city early in spring. We walk closer to see what they are fighting for … yes, territory … four geese, two couples, are marking loudly their spaces-homes-lands

We`re exciting to see them from such a close distance. They`re not scared from us. We sit watching them while eating our sandwiches … the two who won the fight come close, we start throwing bread for them but are not sure how  close they would get to us, or how much closer we should let them get to us!

As the time passes, we all feel more comfortable to enter into each other`s spaces … I`m on alert thinking they`re wild animals and of course strong … look at their wings, beaks, and the noise they can make … But none of us can resist the temptation of this closeness … I feel good thinking we are  building this trust relationship in which these geese are coming so close to us, looking at us for food, … but what else?

Would they also take the bread from our hands? Yes they do … at the end,  Rauz feels comfortable to let them eat from her hand … and they do …. feels strange, extraordinary, … to me, they seem powerful, vulnerable, beautiful, scary all the the same time …

Rauz starts asking us for the camera to take their pictures, she feels so comfortable with them now … happy, proud, and curious … We talk about wild animals, she`s wondering if we should be scared from them, or when we should be scared. We talk about how we can read their thoughts, guess their intentions, feel they`re alarmed. We both agree that they read us too, they can understand if we`re going to harm them, scared from them, not liking them… We plan to go back again to see if they`re nesting.

A unique experience for a child who`s growing up in a city … and whose mom is resisting her request for having a `pet!`

What does being outside mean?

I’m taking the subway to go to work and the ride is about 40 minutes. On the subway line, there are two stations that the train comes on the ground for about 2-3 minutes. I love these two stations because for me this is the time to look out of the window, check the weather, and enjoy the beauty of our city before going underground for another half an hour or so. When my daughter was a toddler, I had to occasionally take her  to the work with me. She didn’t like to be on the subway for such a long time and I used many tricks to make the ride interesting to her. These two stations were her favorite too. She could stand on the seat and look at the world outside. We talked about what we could see, houses, cars, birds, sky, and the sun.

Yesterday, I was surprised to know that on the ground stations/lines have other benefits too. I was sitting and there were 4 teenage girls standing in front of me chatting. As soon as we get on the ground, they all said with lots of excitement, “Yeah! We have service!” and took out their mobile phones! I loved their spontaneous and sincere reaction. Under the ground, there’s  no internet or phone service. For those girls to be on the ground means to be connected again to the virtual world, to send a text, check messages, surf the internet.

For me and my daughter, it means “Yeah, we’re outside again! We can see the sun and the sky.” I know from Louv’s book, The last child in the wood, many young people think about their environment as how much it allows them to be still connected to the virtual worlds. Is there any wi fi service?  Where are the plugs? Can I still text if we go walking down on that trail?

It is not easy to unplug from the rich virtual worlds that are just a click away from us. I don’t know if I can live a day without any “connection.” But I also hope that being outside doesn’t lose its meaning and relevance to us. I love to see the excitement of seeing and tasting the snow on a child’s face, the desire to be adventurous on a  biking trail, and the passion about getting messy in the mud.

Inviting nature to our classrooms

Classrooms for young children, for example preschools or kindergartens, are often organized into ‘learning centers’ where children can explore arts, science, building blocks, writing, drama, and etc. Here is a picture of a science learning center in a kindergarten classroom for children ages 4 to 6. Natural materials, plants, manipulatives, books, and various tools are inviting children to pause, explore, ask questions, seek answers, and discover.

But, 20 kindergarteners responded differently to this center. None of the children became deeply interested in spending time in this center and engaging with the materials.  Hmm, strange.  What’s missing? What can be changed?

Perhaps the materials are representing nature out of its context; the table is blocking the children’s access to the plants and the window; the center doesn’t seem to offer many open-ended opportunities to explore scientific concepts…

But there is a big window facing a grass hill, a tall pine tree, and the neighborhood streets … a window to the world outside the walls of the classroom, a bridge to the real world … to observe and wonder … about the birds, the squirrels, the pine tree … and the people and the car traffic.

What if we move the table away from the window to give children an access to the window … but the window is high and the children are not at the same height as adults … they need something to climb up to better  see the outside … Is it okay to put a bench under the window for them to climb up? Let’s take the risk.

A bench and an open window was all the children needed to get motivated to come to the ‘science learning center’, spend time there, bring  binoculars to spy on squirrels, take photos, draw pictures on the window sill, feed the birds, and get engaged with the natural world … not for a day or two, but for the rest of the school year.

 At this new design of the science learning center, Nature is located in its context; it’s real: fresh air, cool breeze, wind, rain drops on the window, flying birds and busy squirrel, and many more. Plus the people, the cars, the children’s homes across from the street, and the neighbors.

Sometimes, a simple change can make a big difference in getting children’s attention. Let’s think outside of the box when we imagine the nature in the big cities.