“Tumbleweeds is a place to be anecdotal, personal, to share your own excitement,” I said. “This isn’t the type of writing you might have to do for grants or quarterly reports. Tell us your favorite stories.”
She paused for a moment, just enough to give me the sense she was shifting mental gears. “I have lots of stories of kids holding worms for the first time,” she said, and I could feel her smiling. There it is, I thought. Kids, dirt, environmental activism, compost, worms. What’s not to love?
The article that manifested in my inbox a few weeks later, “There is Magic Underground,” hadn’t lost any of that spark. Zappe leads with a third-grade girl, holding a red-wiggler in her hand while two apprehensive boys look on, not quite ready to join her. “ ‘Look!’ she says. ‘It’s like a little, red, break-dancing ninja!’ ” (I almost wanted to stitch that line in needlepoint!)
With that anecdote Zappe captures so much of what happens when children interact with nature: curiosity, trepidation, wonder, discovery, bravery, humor.
Another story in this issue highlights the challenges that can get in the way of making discoveries outdoors.
Katherine Watson, director of Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC), describes taking a group of young children outside to play in the center’s nature play area. A nature play area, she points out, is not a playground. There are no slides, climbing structures or seesaws, just the features that occur naturally in that geographic area — in Los Alamos’ case, rocks, trees, pinecones, grasses and wildflowers.
“But there’s nothing for them to play with!” one of the parents said as the children went outside, echoing a refrain nature educators hear quite often when introducing kids to new environments.
Somewhere between “little, red, break-dancing ninjas” and “nothing for them to them to play with” lies the challenge of getting children to be comfortable in nature.
Some would say all we need to do is give children the opportunity. When Watson gently suggests to the skeptical teachers and parents, “Let’s go watch,” the young children have already begun building a “fort,” setting up a “trading post” stocked with pine cones and rocks, and “fishing” with sticks over the dry creek bed. All they needed to “make it fun” was the chance to get out in it.
But of course it isn’t always this simple. Some kids don’t reach their comfort zone in nature, at least not right off the bat. If they’ve only played indoors or in a playground, if their families haven’t had a chance to go hiking or camping, children might not readily find peace or pleasure outdoors.
Some adults may wonder how it is that third-grade children haven’t held worms until someone puts them in their hands. “Back when I was a kid,” they may say, “we collected worms, went fishing, played in the woods all day …” but the fact is fewer and fewer children have that kind of life today. Their forays into nature and comfort with it will need to be facilitated by adults who are comfortable in nature themselves.
So, what if you’re not so comfortable out there? Nature doesn’t just babble like a brook and rustle like wind through trees. It also crawls, stings, bites and sometimes sucks. As I was recently reminded. This spring on a hike with my brother in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, I left with a deer tick that had to be removed at an urgent-care clinic. I got a great photo of the tick, fattened by my tasty blood, and a prescription for antibiotics as a preventative against Lyme disease.
The little bugger won’t keep me from going back, because by now I know the power of nature to calm, inspire and uplift me.
For those who aren’t yet persuaded of this power, there is a wealth of suggestions in this issue for easing into the outdoors. Watson offers numerous activities at the PEEC and the Jemez Mountains, while noting that nature play actually can happen anywhere and gets more fun with practice. Judith Chaddick takes us to Mesa Prieta, just north of Española, where visitors hike past petroglyphs left by ancient hunter-gatherers and early Spanish settlers (“Mysteries on the Mesa,” in English; “Misterios en la mesa,” translated by Flor de María Oliva into Spanish). The site is open to school groups, teen interns, and tours for families and individuals.
And lest we think that nature is just “out there” at a nature center, or “up there” on a mountain trail, Zappe points out that it’s right here at our fingertips and under our feet. Composting is a connection to its everyday marvels, a chance to participate in the transformation of garbage into new life, a way of bringing the rewards of nature exposure home for our children. “They see entire worlds, whole food webs, living in the compost,” she writes.
Each of these writers shares different aspects of the rewards of getting kids out into nature. I have a favorite of my own: It expands a child’s universe. Kids are the center of their universe; this is good, normal and appropriate. Christian Nardi, owner of Bee Hive, Santa Fe’s children’s bookstore, in her article “The Universe According to Me,” encourages children to celebrate this fact creatively, by letting their writing imaginations fly.
As children grow, however, they realize they are not the center of the universe. This is to be hoped for, at least, if they’re to develop empathy and morality. No better way to realize that than to spend time among the wondrous things that go about their business independently of us, growing and dying, cycling and recycling. We don’t need to go far or stay long to find these wonders. We just need to get close enough to make our own discoveries, to reach the edge of our own “wow!”