Thursday, April 10, 2008

An Inspiring Home for Learning, #3

3. Enjoyment of the natural world is very important for the healthy development of children.

"A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength."

(Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder)

When my siblings and I were growing up, we'd often visit our grandparents at their property just over a mile away from our childhood home. It was always wonderful going to Grammy and Grampy's house, and one of the things I remember hearing often is, "Go outside, honey!" Grammy and Grampy always made a point of going outdoors every day. They thought that the fresh air and sunshine and natural surroundings were important for good health. And I agree.

Children need to be outdoors, and not only for fresh air and exercise, but so they can gain an appreciation for the wonders of our amazing world. God tells us in Romans that there is proof enough of His existence in Creation, and if this is true, we should be enjoying what He made for us! "The heavens declare the glory of God..." So, go outside!

Research shows that direct experience with nature outdoors is very important for children. I have an interesting MIT-published book of research-based essays called Children and Nature. One researcher (Pyle, 1993) stresses the importance of contact with "ordinary" nature: "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... Everybody has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches-- and the fields, the woods, the ravines, teach us to care enough."

In his "Experiencing Nature" essay, Kellert writes: "critics argue that encounters with nature on television, on film, or through the computer can never provide the challenge, immersion, intimacy, discovery, creativity, adventure, surprise, and more afforded by direct and spontaneous experiences in family natural settings. Pyle (1996) remarked in this regard, 'Everyone has... a chance of realizing a pleasurable and collegial wholeness with nature. But to get there, intimate association is necessary. A face-to-face encounter with a banana slug means much more than a Komodo dragon seen on television... Direct, personal contact with other living things affects us in vital ways that vicarious experience can never replace.'"

Emotional and intellectual benefits abound when a child simply explores outdoors. Stephen R. Kellert writes in his essay, "Experiencing Nature," that one could "suggest that few areas of life provide young people with as much opportunity as the natural world for critical thinking, creative inquiry, problem solving, and intellectual development" (and he proceeds to list a string of researches who back up this statement). Psychiatrist Harold Searles suggested: "The non-human environment, far from being of little or no account to human personality development, constitutes one of the most basically important ingredients of human psychological existence." Anthropologist Elizabeth Lawrence (1993) underscored that "even in a modern world of pervasive human domination and artificial construction, nature continues to provide young people with an unrivaled source of attraction, stimulation, and challenge relevant in both intellectual and emotional development." Biologist Edward O. Wilson (1993) suggested that the natural world is the most information-rich environment people will ever encounter.

There is so much in nature to bring delight to a child (and to all of us) that we should enjoy it, if not daily, then as often as possible. Let children explore and play freely outdoors-- those old-fashioned long hours of childhood that most children of today are sadly missing. But we can also help build an appreciation, always careful, as Charlotte Mason warns, not to act as translator or mediator between nature and the child's mind and imagination.

Take slow walks with your young children and let them putter about, noticing all of the things around them. When they ask questions or point to something, bend down, notice, and talk to them about it. If you don't know anything or can't answer questions, it's okay. It's nice sometimes just to wonder and wonder together about something (and you can always look it up later). Lie on a blanket on a warm summer night and look at the stars and the moon. Put up a birdfeeder and watch the birds (really watch them-- what do they do? where do they go? how do they behave around other birds?). Take out a magnifying glass and examine snowflakes that have landed on a fencepost. Notice the trees, the flowers, the clouds and how they change, the weather, animal tracks or other evidence of animal life. Take it slowly and observe. Don't hurry!Let the children collect whatever is interesting to them-- sticks, rocks, flowers, leaves, shells, feathers, anything, and help them find a place to put their collections! Enjoy whatever natural sites and experiences are near where you live and also when you take trips. Take ranger guided hikes. Do the Junior Ranger program at national parks if your children are interested. Look things up in a field guide, but don't force this on anyone. Do it for yourself, and someone else might be interested, too. Talk about what you're looking up and learning. Read stories of nature together. Draw pictures of what you see. Maybe keep a nature journal. Books like Nicky the Nature Detective and Linnea's Almanac (there are many similar books) inspired my girls to do the projects and to draw and paint what they saw. Children can take nature photos, too, and keep them in a book.

There's no one way to do this, and we certainly won't do everything. Take it slowly. Let it happen. And find what inspires your own family.

Much of the early science education of my children took place in nature, and many of the children's later, more advanced, science studies grew out of the things they loved most in nature as a child. I'm absolutely convinced that no formal elementary science education is necessary. All we have to do is enjoy nature, look things up, and learn naturally. Let kids explore and play and learn as they enjoy nature. Charlotte Mason's wonderful philosophy of education lets children learn "science" by enjoying nature, by purposefully observing it, and then keeping a nature journal. Arthur Robinson, a respected scientist, goes so far as to say that science should not be formally learned (with texts or curriculums) until a student has taken calculus. (Most of us aren't going to go that far, but we can at least relax a bit about science before high school!) Robinson believes a child should explore and play and follow interests and learn about science naturally in the early years.