Meaningful connections to nature as our children grow up

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Children’s patterns of needs and desires are not stable but change as they grow up.  One change that parents may see and feel upset about is children’s decreasing preference for natural environments as a place for rest, leisure, and socialization.

A review of many cross-cultural studies show that youth, both in urban and rural settings, prefer more developed and less natural places. In a very interesting research, Kaplan and Kaplan studied solo time in wilderness in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They learned that adults found the experience of being alone in wilderness far more positive than youth. Youth found it both lonely and boring and experienced “silence” as less positive time. In contrast, adults were more likely to report a positive and peaceful experience and a joy in exploring the “mysteries of nature” on their own.

These findings are not surprising as studies of youth preferable places consistently show two important factors: youth like to be where their friends are and where they can do things preferably exciting and adventurous. These factors are strongly rooted in biology and culture and demonstrate youth’s strong need for showing competence and being helpful to others. Hard to believe?! Not when we know that youth desire to claim and/or improve their status in peer groups. Their perception of what their peer say and think about them are important.

The key question how we can keep natural environment relatable and appealing to our children as they grow up. I suggest in our design of space, time, and structure of experiences in nature, we need to offer them many opportunities for making choices, showing independency, taking risk to show competence both in skills and strengths, and gaining respect from peers, us, and larger community. We need to respect and recognize youth’s needs to initiate the paths and set the rules … but more importantly as Kaplans suggest we need to “listen and observe them to see where they are at” … what is meaningful and satisfying to them and trust that with consistent positive experiences although they may feel less comfortable in natural settings now, they would reclaim their biological connections to nature as they grow up to be competent and confident.

 

The call to reconnect …

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Every spring in March, we revisit the tangled tree.

For reassuring stability, that beyond all changes, something never change. The tangled tree can be trusted; the warmness of her arms can be felt; she shows life continues fully and beautifully regardless of ….

My experience of nature has always been affective; perhaps it is merely affective … and spiritual; rooted in my childhood and culture, in emotional and spiritual engagement full of aesthetic appreciation; influenced by historical and political demands of looking for life, the meaning of life, beyond human society, my society.

This search for the meaning of life carried into my adulthood; a subtle and complex interaction which is the main source of resiliency and joy … and identity formation.

It is important for me to nurture and cultivate with Rauz the affective engagement with nature. Rachel Carson (1998) and other environmental scientists suggest that passion for life can be nurtured through immersion and creative interaction with nature and “the emotional significance of experiential relations to nearby nature that seemingly become a legacy carried into adulthood” (Cobb, 1977). An interaction that according to Kellert (2002) can be emotionally complex: wonder, satisfaction, joy, but also, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.

I believe experiencing and responding to these unique and diverse emotions in the natural world prepare her to better understand and deal with challenges of life … after all, these challenges define life … they are the meaning of our shared lives.

For Rauz, at this time, the connection is adventurous, affective, and therapeutic. The visit always starts with finding a “good stick”, to use for searching, climbing, for tactile closeness. Tangled tree is “simple” and subtle, available but somehow mysterious. She measures how much the tree and her have grown together; sibling relationship.   

 

As Pyle (2002) argues such connections and immersions are powerful in nearby and familiar natural spaces … and s0 we continue re-connected to the tangled tree at the beginning of the spring.

At the end of the 20th century, Edward O.  Wilson suggests that the natural world is the most information-rich environment people will ever encounter. One may argue that it’s less true in the second decade of the 21st century, when the virtual Wide World Web is storing a great amount of information that mankind holds. I’d like to disagree and think that humans being smarter to overlook the vast, unimaginable, perhaps infinite information that the natural environment holds.

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Let’s look very carefully at the above photo of my daughter, at age 6, in our favorite natural trail not too far from our home in early spring. The photo shows an ordinary moment of a young child spontaneously deciding to go off the track to cross a narrow stream.

 Rauz: Can I do this?

Me: Yes.
My permission is the starting point for her thinking, planning, and acting:

How can I do it? It is now the time to test my factual understanding and knowledge of this environment against the reality, my empirical experience.

What do I need to carefully consider?

I need to check the branches and the broken logs to see how strong and firm they are to carry my weight. What if the branches are wet and slippery?

I have to check the soil/ground, because it is wet and it might be less hard and not stable enough to hold my weight.

Do I need to hold on my hands to something or can I keep my balance without this? How strong is this tiny thin tree that I am holding on to? Can it carry my weight?

What if I fall? Am I going to get hurt? How bad? How about getting wet?

How can I estimate the height? How much power do I need to lift up my body?

 I’m too young to know how to define gravity, but all my above questions about my weight are about gravity. I am calculating and examining the concept of gravity. I am first-hand experiencing it in this simple desire and determination of crossing a small stream.

Based on her pervious direct experiences, Rauz is starting with some understadning and information about that small piece of nature that she is examining. Her prior knowledge with the new experiences would answer many of the above questions, but will also generate more questions and interests for other inquiries and experimentation.

At the end, I think my experience of observing my young daughter’s interaction with nature once again highlights Richar Louv’s saying in his book The Nature Principle:

“The future will belong to the nature-smart—those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”

 

 

 

 

 

Me-Nature and my Ipod

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I call it digital technology. My daughter calls it “my Ipod”. To her, it is an intimate tool that connects her to the world and she can use it to instantly communicate with anyone.

I call it a tool; she doesn’t complicated it too much. It is simply an Ipod. So she has less hesitation to put it in her pocket and carry it with her every where and all the time.

I call it distraction; she calls it attraction. I invite her to listen to the birds, watch the first buds on the trees, breath the fresh spring air. she says ok but the Ipod has to be a part of it too. It’s not the same without the Ipod. How is she going to share that beautiful moment with her sister or her best friend then? How is she going to save that memory for tomorrow?

I have no answer; but the moment that the Ipod comes in between her and “the real world” I feel something is interfering with the deep connection and relation. I ask, “Why do you need that Ipod to connect to that tree?” “Why does your sister need to see this picture right now?”

She looks at me puzzled. The Ipod is she. It is one of her senses. She touches, smells, and listens to the world; but she Ipods the world too.

While I question that electronic tool in her hand duirng our nature walk, she embraces the world with her Ipod.

It’s just a different experience.

According to the UN statistics, every year, the world’s urban population increases by about 60 million. That means, by 2050, 7 in 10 people will live in cities and towns. In Canada about  81% of the population live in cities (2011). Almost half of the world’s children live in urban areas (2005). We can’t deny the advantages that urban life offers to some children, including access to educational, medical and recreational facilities, although urbanized childhood has created many challenges for today’s children.

We are a few subway stations far from the beautiful lake Ontario, where new high rises are popping up almost everyday and cars are exhausting the streets of downtown Toronto. We have witnessed the growth of asphalt and bricks and the decrease of wild life in the waterfront in the last 10 years.

It’s, however, a complex picture. While the modern urban architecture, entertainment, and colorful crowd are attracting people to visit the Harboutfront, the blue water of the lake, the sky horizon, and the pigeons and sparrows amaze young and old as much if not more.

The foot steps on the wooden pier, the rhythm of the lake waves, honking geese, and the breeze were playing an inviting music for Rauz to dance under t2he clouds.

 

A mix of man-made and natural elements created a stage for a performing body responding to the world around, a body and mind in the harmony with the environment.
I was amazed by her immersion in this environment, in one-hour dance and movement. But wondering if this is a challenge to what Robert Pyle believed as “the extinction of experience,” a loss in our connection to our habitat. I suggest this is a different experience with nature in the urban environments. I can’t deny the richness of a quiet walk on a natural trail miles away from the mechanical noise of the city. But I see the human strong desire to respond to nature and to belonged, regardless of the circumstances.

 

A natural desire to relate

The significance of animals in social development of children and consequently children’s ability and sensibility towards caring for them has been recently receiving a lot of attention from academic research.

If you carefully look at how children build a relationship, the act of touching seems to be especially powerful. From the birth, sense of touch is one of the human’s strongest senses to understand others and the environment. They use it to not only better understand the others, but also to understand their self in relation to others. Who are they in relation to the animate (an inanimate) environment? How can they accommodate these social others? What to expect from them? How to approach them so they don’t run away? How to make them do something/act? How to hold them? How to feed them?

They often initiate a touch, then adjust their move based on the emotional reactions from the animate environment. For children, nature has a living, subjective, individual and inner aspect. Think about how they talk to rocks, or are worried that trees might feel cold in winter, or command bees to leave them alone!

Although I’m often questioning an anthropocentric approach to examine our relationship with nature, it’s hard to deny the deep interconnectedness between nature and human at many different levels. On one hand, starting at very young age, we are strongly curious about them (which can then make nature the subject of our inquiries, sometimes extremely and negatively human-centred). On the other hand, nature is depending on human’s choices, moves, desire, and needs as well. Nature is also ‘studying’ us (in its own way) to better accommodate humans, to adjust to the changes that we have caused or accelerated, to protect itself against our destructive moves, or to embrace our cares and feeding hands.

So, I think, we need to celebrate and encourage children’s desires to know nature, but help them to define who they are in relation to the nature, and find ‘natural’ ways to build a relationship with nature as their social partner.

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