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.

 

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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.

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.

 

We took our ipod with us …

INature walk 001 need to admit that a digital camera is a digitalized technology that I have less concerned about and even encourage my daughter to bring with when we go out for a walk in ‘nature.’ But when she asks to bring her ipod touch, I often say no and feel that it’s going to get all her attention and dominate our experience in nature.

So when we went for a walk in a natural trail close to our city apartment on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, I was not very happy to see my daughter was holding her ipod, in its beautiful blue case that looks like a fancy little purse with her. But parents always compromise.

While we were entering the trail I told my daughter that I’ve not been posting on my blog for a long time and asked her for ideas to write about. Suddenly my husband noticed a tiny white dot in the blue sky right beside the moon. Yes, it was a satellite moving fast and close to the earth. “Look at that satellite Rauz!” I said. Holding her ipod towards it and with a happy gesture, Rauz cried with excitement, “Oh, I have to tell it thank you for my ipod and the internet!”

So I decided to stay positive and be thankful for the ipod and its possibilities in adding joy to our walk.

Nature walk 004 Our young children are growing up in a digital culture where you can take a photo with many devices while ‘real’ cameras are becoming less visible and relevant. So although I kept reminding her that I brought my very great digital camera  and she can use it, she was more excited in trying her own ipod where manipulating the photos and videos are so easy, interactive, and fun.

 

Nature walk 006Her ipod offered many opportunities for paying close attention to microscopic details in nature and taking photos with various purposes (such as, to show daddy, to share with friends, to use to make a video later, to add special effects and make funny pictures, to revisit those photos at home for further conversation about our experience and then plan for our future walks).

Nature walk 009Many of us agree that these small devices are multipurpose and very easy to work with comparing with bulky technology of for example a camera. The irony is that these advantages are sometimes the problem! We all had an experience of losing track of time (and ourselves) using an app, downloading a game, exploring a new feature, or searching through the endless number of our photos. We do all of these things while talking to a person, eating, sipping our coffee, reading to our child, watching a movie, sitting in a meeting, waiting in a bus stop, shopping, walking, biking, driving, and the list is as long as our everyday activities.

 

So recognizing, celebrating, and being thankful for all the opportunities, I’m cautious about the challenges that a cute little ipod in a blue purse can offer us in our quiet search for nature in a city trail. Nature walk 032

In search of beauty in our city natural trails

So, our winter is over and as it is often the experience in Ontario, our spring comes very fast and with a magic wand changes our dead grey cities to green parks of trees that are exploding with pink and white flowers and tulips and daffodils that are sneaking out of the ground in every little corner, and freshly green grasses of the front yards.
With our camera and in our t-shirts and running shoes we went to our secret spot to renew our vows with the tangled tree.

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I invited Rauz to choose the pictures for this post. She and I went over a few pictures that she took on Saturday and here are the two pictures that she liked best.

Other than birds that have migrated back in March, we had not seen many other animals in the last 7 months. And so Rauz was so excited to photograph this turtle exactly where we saw one last year. Revisiting this picture, she said, “Mom, look at the orange dots on his shell. Isn’t he cute?” And I answered, “It’s so interesting to see that even he wants some colors to dress up for spring. Not just plain black or dark brown. He’s like a flower.”

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Rauz kept asking, “Have you ever seen pink tulips mommy? They’re so beautiful and have to be on you post.” “I saw many pink tulips but I agree with you that they are important and look great for this post.” I replied. And I’m thinking about how so many parts of nature are carefully and intentionally paying attention to beauty … and for some of us beauty is the language that invites us to look closely and with awe at nature. So my search, and our search, for beauty shouldn’t be taken for granted or high jacked by limited understanding and interpretation of it. It’s a deep and meaningful search. It is a humane right and now that spring is reminding us of this right, let’s not forget our children in child cares and school settings. The search for beauty should be a pedagogical search too. Margie Cooper asked a provocative question: “Is beauty a way of knowing?” And I love Vea Vecchi’s interpretation of the value of aesthetic dimension in our lives when she describes it as “an attitude of empathy towards things around us, perhaps come first, an aspiration for quality …. an attitude of care and attention toward things. So perhaps the aesthetic dimension could be defined as the opposite of indifference or conformism and it could be defined as the opposite of the lack of participation and involvement.”
IMG_3065 So for this post today, beauty is our right to engage and embrace spring in our cities with great care and attention and with the responsibility and respect toward its fragility and its “rareness” as we know our human experiences are different and not all children are privileged to enjoy the pink tulips as my daughter is.

Let’s go outside and feel the cold with the children

It’s been a very cold and snowy winter. Two snow days when schools were closed and many bus cancelations so far. And this is in our city, rural schools had many more closing and bus cancelation. Days after days of indoor recess at schools because of cold temperature.  -25C degrees, gusting wind of 40 km or stronger, snow, and it’s been for months now.

But it’s not easy to deny the beauty of the snowflakes on our hair, the awe moments of watching the storm from the warmness of our home, the worries and talks about the birds, including the returning geese (I don’t know what they’re doing here in the middle of winter!), and the invitations of big piles of snow to jump off, to roll on, to dig, to kick, to make snow balls, and to just lie down and look at the clouds.

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I have to say that there were few days that we spent more than an hour outside; but those days that we went for walk or play were exciting. Rauz likes most to snow fight, while Hamid and I pretending scared and running away. The role play can continue for the whole outdoor time. Her next best thing is to slide on the ice or walk knees deep in the snow. Or if it’s not too cold to lie down on the snow watch the clouds dances in the sky. These are the moment of peace, pure joy, and fast or slow heartbeats, when Rauz’s imagination is demanding attention and space, when her mind can be focused or wandering and wondering around.

For me, it is a pause to not question the nature for being too cold or too windy but to feel a unique unity between my body and mind and those of my environment.

City parks and wilderness

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It often amazes me to observe people’s reactions and responses to wild surprises in their urban environments. To see a curious raccoon slowly walking up a busy street, a deer passing by a back yard, or a butterfly flying low. Many often pause: these animals don’t  usually show up on our over crowded  streets with heavy traffic and busy people. But when they do, it’s hard  not to see them, not to ask what they are doing here, in our/people’s territory. Our short pauses are important  … curious observations are even more valuable. Environmentalists believe “finding joy in just looking at animals allows us to have the patience to observe them long enough to see something of interest to science.” One doesn’t have to be a professional to appreciate their beauty, to look them curiously, to have a desire to get closer or even touch them … to feel happy that they are there, we’re not after all that lonely in this busy place.

No wonder that many adults and children stopped at this big puddle left from last night rain on a beautiful Sunday morning to express their surprise at seeing a snapping turtle in the middle of a city park on a busy morning.

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