Children Growing Friendships with Nature

Dr. Jean Lomino, Co-Founder and Director of Wauhatchie School

I believe that sustainable education begins as children develop a friendship with the earth. I’ve learned this over a period of 50 years as a classroom teacher, a stay at home mom sharing nature with my children, a college professor, international teacher trainer and consultant, nature center director and forest school founder and director.  I have seen firsthand how nature helps children grow, and I believe these experiences are critical, not only for their health and happiness, but also for the health of our planet. 

Developmentally, the early years are the time when nature experiences can become deeply etched in a child’s mind.  Wallace Stegner (1962) describes it this way: “There is a time somewhere between five and twelve when an impression lasting only a few seconds may be imprinted for life.”  R.M. Pyle writes in his book The Thunder Tree (1993), “It is through close and intimate contact with a particular patch of ground that we learn to respond to the earth.  We need to recognize the humble places where this alchemy occurs.”

Mystery draws children into nature explorations, the hunt for hidden things, through using all one’s senses. Young children are sensorial beings and learn everything they need to know about the world in this way.  They live and move with each sense, well-tuned to every nuance around them. It is only as we tap into our senses and trust what our bodies see, feel, hear, and smell, that we can forge a connection with the earth and can respond to its voice.  Mystery is the attitude that grows and nurtures curiosity and a love of learning. Mystery is everywhere in nature: under leaves, inside bark, beneath a puddle, around a bend in the trail, high in the tree branches, within a flower bud. Arm a child with a magnifying glass, a bucket and shovel, and she will discover the world.

Ancient history is replete with stories of human beings’ deep connections to the earth.  Our children will greatly benefit by learning the stories and customs that provided these cultures with a sense of one-ness with the earth they inhabited and the care they exhibited in protecting all of nature.  Among these early cultures, the sensorial experience helped people to be connected to nature. Walking in the forest, they felt the trees looking at them--exposed, watched and observed from all sides. They had empathy with the living land that sustained them. 

“There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touch us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in turn.  The senses, that is, are the primary way that the earth has of informing our thoughts and of guiding our actions.” (Abram, Spell of the Sensuous)

What you can do with your children to enrich their sense of curiosity and connection to the earth:

Mystery draws children into the unknown, to explore even the simplest of nature’s treasures.  An effortless experience that helps children enjoy this mystery and the inter-connectedness of nature is a log exploration.  A rotting log becomes a neighborhood of busy inhabitants—shiny black beetles reducing wood to saw dust, tiny hinged pill bugs ambling their way amongst the detritus and plump white larvae nestled among other decomposers.  As children watch these tiny creatures doing their important work, they begin to understand how all of life is connected, and that each individual is important to the whole. Allow children to explore a rotten log, using small tools such as tweezers and magnifying glasses.  Help them learn to be gentle and respectful to the creatures that live in the log and to put each one back in its home after investigating it.