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.

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.

The power of Caspian Sea

Summer 2013-Iran 217Travelling with my daughter to Iran after 3 years, I was hoping to see her falling in love with my country … to enjoy being with her extended family (over 20 cousins, aunts and uncles) but also to deeply feel the beauty of this piece of land on “another side of the world” too far from North America. A country with a dry and hot climate but precious pieces of green  lands, waters, and unique mountains. I have to say it was not easy considering her coming from Canada, which has many beautiful natural treasures, with such a small number of people. Also, she hasn’t the opportunity to create the deep memories that I did while I was living in Iran, not only as a child but also as an adult. So no wonder the high mountains, the local parks, and the greenness of places we visited didn’t impress her at all. Until, we went to Babolsar, a city by the Caspian Sea in north of Iran. Caspian sea actually is a huge lake (and that’s why it’s called a “sea” in my country) and it is the largest salt water lake in the world (about 371,000 km2). We Spent 5 days there and she was lucky enough to see the strong waves of this lake and the power of its water pulling anything very hard into the water. People can drown in a shallow water because of these currents which sweep them out to the sea. So I let her to go in the water but had to stay very close to her although she was right on the shore. The very first day, while sitting where the water merging with the sands, she said quietly, “I want to stay here forever!” My heart stopped hearing her expression about the pleasure  of her experience. I was waiting for this moment, to hear this, for 20 days then! The waves and the warm water and the novelty of the experience … a pure moment of unity and harmony.

Now that we’re back to Canada, she has already memories to cherish, memories to keep her connected to Iran, to make her “wanting to go back.”

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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A body in search of …

Feb 2013 045Children cannot resist snow. Their whole body is searching for sensory experiences. Curious eyes follow snowflakes as they fall on one’s jacket, a wide open mouth desires to taste the coldness, hands design snowmen, feet stomp, and the body makes a snow angle. What’s the magic? The texture, the temperature, the color, the shape, or the power of changing the color of a city, slowly but steadily.

The beautiful silence that snow  gifts to a city reminds me of the mornings and evenings that I walked on snow in my home town … when whiteness embraced me

Biophilia  suggests our innate affinity for nature … but this love and attachment need to be encouraged, supported, strengthened, and role modeled … or it can get lost in the business of the 21st century.

Plastic bags and nature

After a windy day, my daughter and I went for a walk in our neighborhood. It broke my heart to see garbage bags every where. My daughter took this picture of a tree that is mis-decorated by garbage bags. She said the tree  must feel very sad.

It is hard to say how long it takes for a garbage bag to completely degrade, but some says perhaps about 100 years.

Let’s be more thoughtful in our next shopping ; we don’t wish to pollute our cities with something that outlive many of us, or do we?

This is a picture that my daughter took from another tree right outside her childcare center. The beautiful authority and the outstanding power of this tree in this picture are what I wish I could save for the generation coming after me.

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.

Indoors, Outdoors, and the Sedentary Life of our Young Children

Every morning when I drop off my 5 and half years old daughter at school, I ask myself how much of her time will be indoors and how much she has to sit on that day. She is in school for 6 hours a day five days a week, and I know other young children who spend as much as 10 hours a day in school/day care (before/after school programs) everyday. And in my city, it is not unusual to spend all that time indoors! This breaks my heart. I am scared to even think about how the day passes for these kids and their teachers being indoors for so long and in a class of 20 to 30 children.

Why is this happening? Many reasons and there’s no shortage of finding new ones: the too cold or too hot weather, the icy condition of the playground in winter, the heat alert in summer , the lack of time, the bored children and teachers when outside, the risk of physical injury, the challenge of ‘supervising’ children outdoors, and the many other important things that need to happen and so kids have to rush inside, …

My daughter’s case,  her school, and my city are not exceptional. I wish they were. This is probably happening in many other schools and cities too. Here’s one broad research of 450 children, ages 3-5, from 24 preschools in a metropolitan area of South Carolina, US. They found:

• Children are largely indoors and sedentary at preschool: 87% of researchers’ observations of children occurred inside and during this inside time, 94% of children’s total physical activity intervals were sedentary.
• Children were largely sedentary outdoors, but displayed higher levels of physical activity outside than inside: 17% of children’s total physical activity intervals were moderate to vigorous and 56% were sedentary.
• Adults initiated the majority of children’s activities. Children engaged in more high-level physical activity when activities were child-initiated
instead of adult-initiated.
• Many teachers did not encourage or participate in children’s physical activities during outdoor play

[Reference: Brown, W. H., Pfeiffer, K. A., McIver, K. L., Dowda, M., Addy, C. L., & Pate, R. R. (2009). Social and Environmental Factors Associated With Preschoolers’ Nonsedentary Physical Activity. Child Development, 80(1), 45-58. This study may be available in a library near you or can be purchased online through the publisher at: http://www.wiley.com/%5D

The findings of this research, in my opinion, are alarming considering the crucial value of physical activities and outdoor time in children’s physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, and  intellectual health.

One may argue that after all, school is just a part of these children’s time. What about when they are not in school or daycare? What may we learn if we do a mini- study about these children’s outside school experiences? What does happen when parents pick up their children at the end of their day in school? How much more seating and indoorization is involved for the rest of their time?  Are they seated in a car to go home? Or do they walk or bike home? Do they need to sit to finish their home works or school projects? Or do they play in a park after school? How much time do they spend watching TV, surfing the internet, playing video games, reading books, eating, and etc when at home? Let’s ask ourselves, on average, in a day, how much of our children’s time is spending indoors or outdoors and what do they do when outdoors or indoors? Is anybody interested to share?

I can think about yesterday: holiday time, no school, and everybody was off from work. It was a mild winter day, about 7 degrees Celsius. My daughter spent one hour and a half outdoors ice skating and snow playing, and the rest was indoors/at home!  When at home, her friend and she danced for one hour, played with their toys or draw for about another 5 hours. They also watched two movies for about 3 hours in total. That is: they spent just about %6 of their day outdoors and %12 of their day doing physical activity. Hmm, and I thought I have an active life style!

Do you think we need to become more aware of and bring to the public attention the sedentary and indoor life that our children (and we) live today? Do we, parents, teachers, and the wider community, need to resist it and question the reasons we’ve been given or making to stay indoors and often physically inactive?  Where are our  priorities and where they need to be on each and everyday of our precious life?

Boys and Nature

 
Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it or enjoy sharing the pleasure and joy of it with those who celebrate Christmas.

When I was writing about boys in the city, I was thinking about  my friend and Colleague, Dr. Kimberly Bezaire and her research on boys, play, and literacy as well as her mother research that she’s been doing with her son for more than 10 year. So, I thought to invite her to join the dialogue and post on this blog. Here’s what she wrote for us and also generously shared a picture of her son.

Yes…boys pretend – tell, act and live stories – outside… adventures, dangers, fears & courage – these are the play themes I see and hear… especially when I’m not supervising TOO closely.

What is it about outdoor play that makes it so memorable, so special, so full of imagination and possibility?
The wind in your hair… the big sky or the tiny bugs… crunchy leaves… the smell of green… the feel of squishy mud The many things that fill our senses when we’re outdoors….

The risk-taking, experimentation, and adaptability that is possible outdoors – when kids aren’t restrained as much by grown-up walls and grown-up rules… then they can build and break down their OWN walls… and make up their OWN rules… no worries about too much noise or too much mess.… friendship & feelings – loyalties & comradeship are focus – creating and overcoming obstacles!