Nature as a Source of Deeper Nourishment for Children
by Nancy Monson
Do you remember your special experiences of nature as a child? I was awestruck by thunderstorms that passed over Lake Michigan; the power of the wind, threatening waves and the darkened sky are still vivid in me today. After the storm passed I remember experiencing a sense of calm that settled deep inside of me. The sound of the wind in the trees and the waves on the shore helped me feel at home in myself. Nature penetrates to what is real in us. So little of city life puts us in touch with the wonder of nature that it’s up to us as parents and teachers to foster this in children.
The world, and the forces that govern it, can only be discovered by getting outside and EXPERIENCING IT. When children play, explore, observe, run, club and even rest outside they are slowly being impacted by the power, peace, stillness, love, beauty and other qualities that provide deeper nourishment for their beings.
Children of all ages can develop a relationship to nature only by spending time in nature. Nature time needs to be a family priority for this to happen. The importance of this relationship is far reaching. Only by feeling in relationship to the earth will children (people) want to take care and protect it. Boulder is blessed with all kinds of open spaces to visit. If you have not taken your child hiking before, start flat, and start where there are interesting things to discover. Sawmill Ponds is filled with snakes, birds, fish, bugs, turtles and even otter. There are little islands to find your way to, big dead trees to climb, and fishing is allowed.
When you begin to hike on trails, do not set goals until the children gains some confidence. I do not recommend trying to “get” somewhere with children until they have either turned about five or they are comfortable hiking. Play games like chasing, racing, getting to the next big rock to climb if the children are not content to just walk and enjoy the walk. Look for animal homes or tracks and for the little ones, looking for fairies always works. We named one place Fairy Land and the kids have gone home and then taken their parents on that hike. And….it is at the top of a very big hill! Another suggestion is to focus more on the pleasure of just being outside; no rushing! It is good to know the area you are hiking in (it helps to return to places so kids know where they are going) and where there is a delightful, open space you can have lunch or a snack and play in for an extended time. There are great spots all over the Mesa Trail and the Homestead Trail to the north of Eldorado Springs-Mesa Trail parking lot.
Give your children extended time in nature without toys. A day in the foothills, mountains or by water, children can play for hours with nothing to entertain them but sticks, stones, dirt and their imaginations. Over time, their senses perk up, their need for attention lessens, as they feel more content internally. Younger kids, especially, can be led down imaginative paths with fairies, elves, or unseen animals. Even older children can reclaim a place in nature when given the opportunity to take hikes and find places to just hang out and do nothing. It might be uncomfortable at first, the lack of obvious stimulation, but after time, a sense of relaxation can come, the enjoyment of being with yourself and a friend (that friend being nature).
Kids need to run, play and explore in big open spaces. At the daycare I direct, we take the 3-1/2 to 5 year olds hiking every week. Those little legs are a lot stronger than we think! It’s important children be free to roam in order to get a sense of their strength, endurance, balance and grace, as they climb on rocks, bushwhack, follow trails, ford streams and cross large meadows. This experience of their bodies helps develop self-confidence and inner joy that comes from delighting in moving and playing. At our elementary school, the children hike twice a week, carrying their own packs and traveling greater distances. Still, the main focus is exploring, playing, and finding a home in nature. At the same time this is going on, there is the constant observation of the natural world and the discovery of how it works, and what our place is in it.
DO NOT CARRY YOUR CHILDREN after they are able to walk well on their own. They will get used to it and nag you until you do it. On our hiked we never carry the children. This is the only way to give them the experience that their legs are strong, they can hurt one minute and rebound the next by staying light and easy. The only exception to this rule is when you have truly gone too far on your hike, but this is rare if you keep in mind that their little legs are taking twice as many steps to your single stride.
Set up transitions to help children receive quietness in nature. Tell then you’re going to a special spot but they have to be quiet (whisper as you speak). Adults have to model being quiet, taking time to stop, look around, listen, to settle into reflection. Hiking and talking the whole time is not the same as being in a more receptive mode. At our elementary school we have quiet, alone time every day, and it works the best when we are on our hikes. The children find their own spot and just hang out for 20 minutes or more. Children do not need the names of flowers, plants, and animals. “What they need is an experience, the feeling that creates a sense of awe as well as belonging to nature. Nature is one of the great mysteries, and being in her space creates a link back to the creative forces that made the world. This sense of belonging to a great whole is very internal and does not need words. It is felt in the silence and is one of the necessary components of self-esteem.
One of the things that I feel children who have low self-esteem or even more aggressive or hyperactive temperaments need, is a lot of time in nature: time to move and throw and jump; to do what ever they want physically, and then, a time to relax, really relax so that the love and acceptance of nature can penetrate their pain and help them to feel loved. Nature makes no demands for anything back. It allows you to simply be.
Extensive outdoor education should be part of every child’s schooling. But since it is not, and children spend the majority of time in school indoors, inactive in a fully bodily sense, this education needs to happen with the family. Go on walks in every season, look for places little creatures live, explore places you never would, look at the night sky and follow the progress of the moon, watch the weather, climb tress and plant gardens. It’s up to parents to provide these opportunities, and in the process their own relationship to nature.
© Nancy Monson, 2005. All rights reserved.
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