Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Did you know there's such a thing as Nature Deprivation Syndrome?"

"Did you know there's such a thing as Nature Deprivation Syndrome?" That's how our conversation began. I was working in one of my boulevard gardens today and a man approached me with a smile and compliments about my garden. He asked me if I knew about this syndrome (It's actually called nature deficit disorder, and is not a medical term, but rather one coined in Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods). He went on to tell me how city kids, in particular, suffer because they don't get to experience things like this - he pointed at the sunflowers, coneflowers, and prairie sage, among other things, growing nearby. We talked a little bit about children and nature, as I explained that I am a preschool teacher at an area nature center. His face lit up and he said, "So you get them when they're really young, and you get to take them outside?" Yes. Exactly.

Boulevard gardens

We know that one of the key factors for adults who love and protect the natural world is having had positive experiences in nature as children. So getting children outside when they are very young and giving them access and freedom to explore and enjoy nature - plants, insects and other animals, dirt, rocks, and elements of weather - is crucial.

Front yard bird feeder

Now what about those city kids? Nature is everywhere, even in the city. One way I make nature available to children in my city, to people of every age really, is through my gardens. I have planted nearly every square inch of our tiny city lot. Front yard, back yard, boulevards, and alley. There are gardens in the ground, in planters, pots, bags, tires, boxes, plants climbing walls and porches, and plants in raised beds. I grow edibles, native perennials, annuals, trees and shrubs. My daughter has her own raised bed in our front yard. Just this year we took out our last remaining bit of turf grass and replaced it with native grasses and wildflowers. We provide habitat for butterflies, birds, bees, squirrels, rabbits, voles and mice, the occasional toad, dragonflies, raptors, worms, slugs, and countless other invertebrates and mammals. And because my daughter is outside all the time, and has been nearly her whole life, she knows every hiding place for every animal. She knows, from observing, what they eat, what type of habitat they require, and how (if appropriate) to safely handle them.

Boulevard garden

I've talked to many people who walk past my house and smile when they look at the gardens. I can see the delight when someone watches a butterfly on a milkweed plant or sees a goldfinch eating seeds from the flower of a cup plant. Gardens make people happy. I suspect some of that happiness comes from the sensory nature in gardens - the colors, scents, textures, the beauty in nature. Gardens remind us of the wonder, joy, and diversity in the natural world. But I think gardens also remind us that there are powers greater than ourselves, that while we can plant things and meticulously try to maintain them a certain way, there is a wildness out there that we can't tame. In my opinion, that's a good thing.

Planters filled with kale, amaranth and dill

So yes, I do know about "nature deprivation syndrome." And I am doing my best to combat it in my little corner of the world. One garden at a time.

Raised bed on boulevard,
planted with beans and squash
Anything can become a planter! These hold sunflowers,
okra, and cosmos. In the alley garden.

Friday, August 1, 2014

"Frogs Are My Life!"

This morning I had the privilege of taking a small group of preschool-aged children for a nature hike. They were excited to show me all of their favorite places on the grounds of the nature center. We started out at a brisk pace, that energy and excitement barely contained. We had a destination in mind, but along the way there were SO many things to stop and examine.

Children are great collectors. We often find sticks, rocks, feathers, pinecones, and other random objects in pockets, bags, and the washing machine. They love to pick things up, carry them, show them to other people, and tuck them safely away in a pocket. On our hike this morning, the children showed me black cap raspberries, burdock, feathers, snails, slugs, and toads.

The toads were especially exciting. In a grassy path, lined with jewelweed and burdock on either side, we found dozens of small toads jumping in front of our feet. The children were quite adept at spotting and catching the tiny creatures. I have to admit that I get nervous when children catch animals. I am always worried about harm to a living being. It's a fine line to walk - balancing a child's desire to learn, and need to touch, with the well-being of a much smaller creature. They were incredibly gentle with the toads and wanted to take them all the way back to school to show their classmates. After a long discussion about what would be best for the toads, we decided to carry them just a short distance to one of their favorite places in the woods and release them there. They reasoned that the habitat was similar and they would be safer in the woods than back in the classroom. The toads, which they insisted on calling "frogs," fared well. They all made it to Tipi Hill, cradled gently in small palms. As the children opened their cupped hands and the toads jumped back out into the world, one child squealed with delight. She stretched both arms to the sky, looked up into the canopy of trees, and exclaimed, "Frogs are my life!"

Indeed, in that moment "frogs" were at the center of everyone's life. It was a wonderful reminder of the power of nature in the lives of children. And why we can't be afraid to let them touch, explore, question, and seek with limited interference. That morning the children experienced freedom, connectedness with their environment, the care of living creatures, patience, confidence, negotiation, the ethics of removing an animal from its habitat, and the sheer joy of discovery. And we only used two band-aids.

The good news for urban-dwellers is you don't need to be at a nature center or deep in the woods for children to have experiences like these. Let them explore the backyard, the schoolyard, a nearby park, an alley, a lawn, or even a sidewalk crack. They will find living creatures. And who knows, your child might joyfully exclaim, "Ants are my life!"

Some nature books in urban settings:
Hey Little Ant, by Phillip and Hannah Hoose
Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy, by Jacky David
The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown