Rachel Carson, famous marine biologist and conservationist, talked about the importance of sharing a Sense of Wonder with children, and how each and every child needs at least one adult with whom to share nature. More recently, Richard Louv wrote about Nature Deficit Disorder being the biggest problem facing our children today. Helping children build a relationship with the earth helps them connect with the world. A relationship with nature provides a richness throughout one's lifetime that is immeasurable.
Many of us have fond memories from our own childhoods of times when we were sent outside to play – mother's orders! Sometimes we played with children in the neighborhood (four square, baseball, bike riding), other days maybe we built forts in the woods or thickets nearby with friends or even alone. Those hours of play and enjoyment in the elements and nature, have helped mold us into the people we are today.
There were no constant clicks from electronic devices in our pockets when we were kids. As a child my time was filled with what was actually happening in the environment around me – be it a robin's call, the splash of a mud puddle, or a thick cloud over the hot sun. All of these things bring a child into the present moment, connecting him or her to life itself. That connection to the earth helps breath mindfulness as well as imagination.
Connecting Children with their Food
There are many ways you can help your children draw a connection to their food sources. By joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) garden or farm, growing some of your own food, or visiting a local Farmer's Market on a regular basis, children learn how their food is grown and produced; they learn the miracle of seed to produce to table, as well as what is in season in their locality. Selecting locally produced and organically raised, fresh produce forms the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating.
"Over the past 15 years we've met so many children who have no idea where their food comes from," says Deb Denome, president of Seeking Common Ground, a nonprofit that helps oversee Ontario County's Farm-to-Cafeteria program. "Bread comes in a bag. There is no awareness that it is made from grain. Some think potatoes grow on trees. To witness kids, and adults, dig potatoes for the first time is like watching people dig for gold – there's such pure enthusiasm and excitement." Agricultural education that helps children and families grow their own food helps people feel empowered. Denome adds, "When we harvest potatoes – or anything – directly from the Earth, it expands our relationship with the Earth. We care more. We want to know more about how our other food is grown and raised and how the Earth is treated in the process."
Connecting Children with Other Creatures of the Earth
Whether you are feeding birds with a homemade feeder outside your window or volunteering at an animal shelter, you are helping build empathy and understanding with the animals who share this planet with us. While watching Animal Planet and other documentaries are engaging and valuable education tools, nothing speaks more strongly than allowing your child to have actual encounters with wildlife and wild things.
• Fishing builds on conservation ethics and understanding of the environment, but if fishing isn't your thing, try stream exploring. Look under rocks for aquatic invertebrates like water bugs and crayfish.
• The Seneca Park Zoo offers a plethora of activities for children, teens, and families year-round. Programs ranging from day events to day camps and internships engage children in not just zoology and animal care but issues surrounding habitat, sustainable living, and conservation.
• Lollypop Farm (part of the Humane Society) is a wonderful place to take chilDren to learn about pet care and farm animals. Lollypop Farm also offers animal husbandry programs for youth and are open for family visits and tours year round.
• Wild Wings Raptor Center in Mendon Ponds Park houses and cares for injured and disabled raptors that can no longer be released into the wild. The hawks, owls, and other raptors housed at the center used for educational programming. The facility is open to the public daily (except Wednesday) from 10 am to 2 pm. You can visit online at www.wildwingsinc.org or call 585-334-7790.
Connecting Children with the Universe
The stars are one of the oldest fascinations of humankind. When you help connect children to the concept of a greater universe, you are expanding their minds to unlimited possibilities. Spend time star gazing and looking through a telescope.For an indoor activity visit the Rochester Museum and Science Center's Strasenburgh Planetarium. Learning about constellations and planets helps children understand that we live on a very small planet in a vast universe. This earth is special. And the chance that we are alone out here in the universe is pretty small.
Connecting Children with the Outdoors
Remember neighborhood baseball games? Capture the flag? Even just riding bikes around and around the same block? All of these activities offer something that no video game can really provide – real exercise and fresh air. Taking children on nature hikes through a local park, along Lake Ontario beaches or to adventurous destinations helps your child contemplate the complexities and diversity of nature and all living things. Such activities build questioning skills, inquisitiveness, observation, reflection and even mathematics. Spending time looking closely at a patch of moss, the skeleton of a washed up fish, or even a flower in a window box helps reaffirm the credibility of your child’s own sense of wonder while, miraculously, reigniting yours.
Connecting to the All of Nature
Sharing nature with a child is one of the most important things we can do for our children. You don't have to be a hiker or a farmer either. Tending houseplants or pets, collecting stones or seashells, or painting a tree you see outside the window together are all ways we can help children build a relationship with their environment. Connecting with nature feeds our hearts, minds, and souls. It builds our relationship with a Greater Source – be it God, Allah, Goddess or what-have-you. Building on this connection is a lifetime affirmation, one that begins in infancy and needs to be supported through childhood and beyond. It is the only cure for saving ourselves and our planet.
"You carry Mother Earth within you," says Zen Master, Thich Naht Hahn. "She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment." If we all held this belief close to our hearts, in raising our children, and in pursuing our days, imagine the oneness we would create with all living things and within ourselves. Imagine the care we would bestow upon the earth when we recognize how interconnected to the earth we truly are.
Besides, spending time in nature is just plain fun!
Angela Cannon-Crothers is a contributing writer to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. She is an an educator at Herb Haven in Crystal Beach as well as a writer and author. You can visit her website at angelacannoncrothers.webs.com