Musings on Children, Nature, and You!

It's only the second day of nature camp, and as a counselor I have already spent many hours of my free time after work studying things that I have missed so much during the past school year of papers and assigned readings...

Last night, I studied Ohlone culture for an hour or two, taking notes for a lesson that I am facilitating on Friday about technology (mortar and pestle, bow and arrow, nets, snares, hot rocks, etc.), the natural landscape as it was 200 years ago in my hometown and surrounding area, and medicinal and useful plants. These are topics I avidly studied in high school on my own, back when I had more free time. Once I create the lesson plan for Friday, perhaps I'll post it here so others can use it, too.

Tonight, I spent some time re-reading the biography of Opal Whiteley, an inspiring American nature enthusiast and writer who at the age of 5 began writing a nature diary in the woods near her home in Oregon. She was a remarkable person, and I remember being very drawn toward her when I first came across a book about her that contains her diaries, The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow. I just glanced at the date when she passed away, and it was two months before I was born. My first thought was that if reincarnation exists, perhaps she and I share a link--the same soul, the passing on of wisdom and light and awareness of nature as she left the world and I was brought into it? At the very least, her words link us together, for I understand in her writings something magical in nature that I have experienced myself and work to inspire in others, especially children.

Opal Whiteley (Source)

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I'm working at a nature camp as a counselor, which is partly why I pulled the book about Opal off of the blue shelf in my closet yesterday while searching for native plant and Ohlone books. Nature-deficit disorder is a serious problem in our society, and to be inspired and awed by Opal's engagement with nature at such a young age makes me think of the children at camp. Though the kids in my group are a little older than Opal was when she began her journal, they are children with the capacity to fall in love with nature--and certainly, many have. It is my hope and the purpose of the camp that the children in our community are exposed to the natural world and come to respect and appreciate it. So many children these days have never even set foot in a creek, do not know how to be quiet on a trail, are unaware of the whole world in their backyard. I am blessed and so grateful to have parents who brought me outside and camping from an early age. The fact that I have stories about being eye to eye with a coyote as a kid, about seeing bears in Yosemite and other places, about seeing snakes around Pinecrest Lake, and so many other tales that I can share with the kids at camp makes me feel so privileged. I remember a time before our family had a computer, before every kid had a cell phone, before iPhones were a thing, and before digital cameras were the lens through which we saw our lives. I refuse to own a Smartphone because I see what it does to the attention spans of my friends and family, how it becomes a safety blanket from knowing where you are, and how it leads to overconsumption of email and Facebook--something I already struggle with simply with a laptop computer.

It's these technologies--so different from those of the people who lived here 200 years ago--that are harming our relationship to our world and our sense of place on earth. Videogames, computers, homework, and other indoor activities take away the attention of today's naturally curious young people, reducing their ability to even access that curiosity outdoors. I believe it is the role of those who are aware of their lack of nature time to foster their appreciation for and desire to be outdoors. I often have to remind myself to get off the computer, write in a notebook instead of a blog, go on a walk, or simply sit in my backyard and pay attention. For today's children, the habits and memories they are forming now often do not include nature time--how can they remind themselves to go outside and be quiet and listen if they have never done this before?

On a similar note, I was just checking my email and came across an article called "THE WISDOM OF ONE PLACE: Why We Need to Know Where We Are" by Fred First. It talks about the value of knowing intimately the natural world around you and building a relationship with it and your community in order to have a greater appreciation for all natural spaces and our world. The thoughts expressed in the article totally reflect thoughts I've had the past few years about the importance of knowing where you live--the community, the animals, the plants, the nooks and crannies of vacant lots and buildings--in order to care about your world. Each place I've lived or spent a lot of time in--which includes home, mountain vacation and camping places, and UC Santa Cruz--I have taken the time to get to know as much as I can about the natural, social, and cultural worlds there. I feel deeply connected with these places. I have always been drawn to understanding geographically where I am. I love maps and having a clear sense of direction, and thinking about this in terms of knowing place, it makes a lot of sense to me this evening. I do not know what it feels like to be disconnected from a place for very long. I crave connecting to the heart of places, to the histories--human and natural--that exist there and influence the way things are. It makes life infinitely more interesting and fun for me--I know this because I have spoken to people from my hometown who hate it there, have no connection to civic life or natural areas or community beyond their group of high school buddies. When I go home for the summers, as I am home now, I feel truly at home and connected to a network of people, places, stories, memories, and history. When I'm at school, I feel a similar connection to place that is becoming stronger the more I spend time off the hill and in the Santa Cruz community.

Your own backyard can be a whole new world full of things to study and learn and experience. For a small child, this weedy lawn could be a jungle and the worms and bugs in its depths the most exotic of creatures. 

For children, this sense of place and rootedness is important. If they do not foster it where they grow up, a time when they have more curiosity and free time than later in their lives, I worry that their ability to create a connection or desire to understand the world around them will diminish. It makes me think of a plant that cannot take root anywhere, but floats around, unable to find a place to live and grow. Perhaps I'm being overdramatic, but given the distracted, pointless, disconnected conversations and experiences I observe in my own peer group--who grew up for part of their lives without cell phones and computers--I fear for the next generation of children who are growing up completely surrounded by technologies that distance them from the real world out there. Who wants to live through a screen that tells them what's happening in the real world? Isn't that what Twitter, Facebook, even blogging is?

I say go outside, right now. Breathe in the air, whatever time of day it is. If there are stars, say hello. If there is a sun, thank it for the warmth and life it provides to each of us every day. If there's a moon, howl at it! Set the example for the children in your life by balancing your indoor, technology time with nature time. Be grateful you're alive, and start behaving more like a human being--which means knowing where you are, using your senses, experiencing the real world, and loving one another a little more!

Happy Tuesday,
Green Gal


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  1. Great post, Melissa! It's after midnight here in Nantucket but before going to bed I am going to step outside and admire all the bright shiny stars in the sky! Thanks for the reminder! xo

  2. As always, I find your posts inspiring. I teach nature journal workshops to children and am always trying to think of ways to get them turned on to nature.


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