Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Your work with children in nature is sacred."

Wow, it's been a long time since I've written a blog post. A lot has changed in the two and a half years since my last post. My commitment to working with children in nature has not. If anything, the last two years have given me more experience, a broader perspective, and a deeper appreciation for the work of the early childhood teacher with nature as the classroom.

I work for Dodge Nature Preschool, in West Saint Paul, MN. The preschool is located on the grounds of Dodge Nature Center, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. We recently hosted an evening with Richard Louv at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, during which a great conversation unfolded about the value of nature in the lives of children. If you are not familiar with Louv's work, he coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder" in his book Last Child in the Woods. Since its publication in 2008, we've seen a movement driven by educators, researchers and parents to bring the importance of nature to the table, to advocate for nature in schools, in the workplace, in healthcare, housing, and more.

If you're reading this blog, chances are you already understand the value of nature for healthy individuals and communities. Here are some of the things I took away from the conversation that evening, some ideas I'm still pondering and trying to figure out how to expand on in my own work.

  • Regarding the importance of getting children outside early in life... Truly, parents often end up rediscovering the wonder of the natural world right alongside their children. It happened for me. Shortly after my daughter was born, I put my teaching career on hold to be home with her. The days can feel incredibly long when you're a stay at home parent. Getting outside was crucial for my own mental health as well as for her development. The fresh air, the change of scenery, something about just walking around the block to clear our minds and lift our spirits was the antidote to many tough moments. Even better, the more we were outside the more we wanted to be outside. Everything was new and wondrous to my toddler - every rock held the potential of exciting new discoveries beneath it. Every new sensory experience was magical. It was those tough but precious years that drove me back to school to earn a Master's degree in Environmental Education.
  • "Nature teaches compassion, hope, and acceptance." One spring my daughter found a robin's egg on the ground. Whole, beautiful, blue, delicate. She was sure that if she brought it home, placed it under a warm blanket, and watched over it that it would eventually hatch. Of course it didn't and that was a hard lesson for her. But in the process of trying to hatch the egg, she learned about life, death, empathy for other beings, care for another, to hope, to try, and to accept that sometimes there were things she could not explain or change. 
  • Everything is connected. We are not alone. We need other species. Consider this study from the United Kingdom. Researchers found that city parks with higher biodiversity actually have a larger positive impact on mental health than parks where there is less diversity of species. Kind of makes sense. Being surrounded by more forms of life means a healthier ecosystem, of which humans are a part. We know that monocultures are not a good thing. The emerald ash borer epidemic in Saint Paul is a perfect example. Plant a large portion of your city boulevards with the same tree and when an insect specific to that tree starts to kill them, you've got no trees left.
  • Cities can become engines of biodiversity. Think of rooftop gardens, inner city parks, pollinator gardens, and schoolyard gardens. When you plant a garden or protect green space in a city you create habitat for species other than human. And having those species around is important not only because they have a right to exist, but also for human well-being.
  • In terms of nature being beneficial to child development, here's an interesting, and alarming, finding: Spatial sense atrophies in children who don't spend time outside. Do we want to raise children who are so dependent on technology that they can't navigate in the real world without it? Check out The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, by Gary Paul Nathan and Stephen Trimble.
  • "Your work with children is sacred" (Richard Louv, 2/9/17). It isn't often that we speak of the sacred in public discourse. We seem hesitant to talk about spirituality because it gets mucked up by religion. But this isn't about a particular faith. Yes, the word sacred is used in reference to worship or religion, but it is also defined as "something highly valued and important." So what nurtures the spirit? What can we do in our work with young children that is deserving of the label sacred? To me as a teacher and parent, it is taking children outside and letting them lead, watching them discover, explore, and observe, helping them test boundaries and take risks, encouraging them to ask questions and make connections. That truly is sacred work. And it is an honor to be part of it.

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