Tuesday, August 30, 2016

how to foster respect for nature while encouraging kids to play

Two six-year-olds are playing in a creek, and barks at the other, alarmed: "What are you doing?!"

The other barely looks up from her task, yanking and hauling at a fern frond. "I'm just getting this fern to put in my dam."

"Stop hurting nature!"

"I'm not hurting nature! It's just a fern! I need it for my dam!"

The first is distraught, and looks at me plaintively. "She's hurting nature! Tell her to stop!"

And I didn't.

It's a common issue among nature-based educators, parents and even among kids playing outside: How to foster respect for our surroundings while still having fun with the materials and resources at hand. Engagement is essential to developing a strong bond and learning from whatever we're using, and we need freedom to play in order to fully engage. So how do we look after the space, the other parts of our ecosystem, and the resources we have? The following is a list of some of my own practices; hopefully they're useful as a jumping-off point for others.

Stop using the word 'nature' - or define it. The way we currently use this word separates us from the rest of what is truly our own ecosystem, setting up an artificial boundary between 'people' and 'nature', which, far from creating a respect for 'nature', allows us to easily disengage from it when it suits us. Imagine taking out twenty weeds to put in a garden bed. Now imagine taking out a tree for the same. Now a rat's nest. Now your kitchen sink. Now your mother. All of those imaginary sacrifices are not equal - why? Because of their perceived value. When 'nature' is not part of us - part of our family - then we can ignore its value. But somewhere deep inside most of us do understand that we are a part of nature. At its root, the word 'nature' just means everything in the universe we know; the ecosystem we came from. Without it there are no silicon computer chips, no electricity, no asphalt roads, no buildings, no food; no people at all. 'Nature' is us. So being invested in its welfare requires dispensing of the artificial separation encouraged by the current connotation of the word 'nature'. My preference is to make the point by referring to our surroundings as 'our ecosystem', and sometimes talking or asking about our specific roles in our ecosystem. This provides a lot of opportunity for discussion about how the ecosystem works, what we observe, etc., but I think it would be equally effective to discuss the meaning of nature, and to talk about the nature of people, and the way we interact with the other parts of nature.

Father and son playing at the lake.
Play! An understanding of the way things work helps us to feel true respect for them. And understanding comes from explorative learning! So play. Not just the kids you work with, but you. Get deeply personally engaged. Other kids and adults will see and follow suit. And play innocently. Don't be afraid to talk about the things you see that you don't understand. Look them up together, observe them together, and theorize about them together. If the kids aren't interested, let them do other things and observe and theorize by yourself. Even if you don't share your discoveries, the people you are with will feel your engagement and be inspired. They may not discover or explore the same things you do, and that doesn't matter at all. What they explore matters to them, and that is the best possible scenario. When something matters to them, they will care.

Notice the damage you do. I tend to gently point out damage being done on the spot, or cumulative damage from many days of exploring the same area. "Oh look we've kind of removed most of the moss from this log," or "I can see where we've been walking every week; it's beginning to look like a deer trail." "Did you notice all the beetles running for safety when we pulled apart that rotten log? Look at the mycelium we've exposed. I wonder how we've changed their lives in pulling it apart." The idea is not to be critical, but to make observations and help others to make observations. People always make change - everywhere we go. Just our existence changes the world. For the same reason I feel that being involved in food production is far better than buying food on a Styrofoam tray, I feel that being involved in the many ways we impact our ecosystem is far better than pretending it doesn't happen. Yes, sometimes I stop people from ripping all the moss off a tree, or from destroying a whole log full of insects. But for the most part I just point out what's happening. We truly are a part of our ecosystem and we, like trees, bacteria, deer and mosquitoes, cannot live without also destroying. That's more than OK - that's life. So we have to do it consciously.

Don't be heavy-handed. You don't want to provoke fear. Far from being a healthy component of respect, fear leads to a lack of respect. The more people are afraid of their impact (or afraid of a teacher or parent's reaction to their impact), the more they will separate themselves from the rest of their ecosystem, and the less they will engage with it and care for it. As mentioned earlier, I try to encourage thoughtful conversation, but not to criticize. Who am I to criticize, anyway? I eat food, I use products; I walk on this earth. I have an impact, too. It's important to leave each other feeling thoughtful and empowered. The more we live in our own strength, the more we learn to use it with care.

Relax. This list is short for a reason. There's nothing more important than being comfortable in your environment, than playing without intention; than exploring with abandon. Too many rules gets in the way of all that. So just go out and play. Forget about this list, and forget about all the worries you may have had. If you damage something, so be it. Let that be a lesson for next time, and a place to leave a bit of your heart behind in the wilderness and help it heal. It will heal, and so will you. Because we're all a part of the same thing anyway.

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