Children and Nature
Most humans retain a sense of kinship with natural environments. Even urban dwellers will seek out little moments of nature and will feel deep satisfaction when they can sit for a moment in park, watch birds or find their way to a beach to hear and feel the reassuring action of waves. A sense of natural beauty is rooted in old primate preferences for food-rich, flowering plants and trees, for savannahs with abundant game and vistas that are simple and easy to understand. Children thrive in natural environments and need to develop a deep connection with plants and animals.
Our deepest recognitions come from contact with rocks, wood, fire, metal, bone and water. The history of the unique features of our mind is rooted in a very slow, gradual transformation from creatures who lived in nature to creatures who transformed the nature of rocks, bone and wood into tools, weapons and shelters. The finest of homes to this day display rock, wood and fire. Civilized humans still cook meat over fires in back yards and fires improvised on beaches, feeling more peaceful and authentic on a camping trip when they are closer to their inner and wilder nature.
My bias is strong and clear. I am on the side of Nature. I want all children to enjoy healthy natural environments, to learn about plants and animals and to feel connected to mother earth. When I was five years old, my family moved a new suburb on the edge of Toronto, a typical North American city beginning its post-war growth spurt. My back yard was a forest that led down into a river valley - still natural and full of wonder. For a few years, I enjoyed this natural environment and made friends with trees, flowers, birds, raccoons and fish in the river. I was never a hunter, but I was a participant, a fellow creature among friends. I climbed trees. I discovered peace and joy in the natural environment. The city grew, as I grew, and I watched the cherished natural environments of my childhood disappear - swallowed up and replaced by houses, roads, and shopping malls. I adapted to an increasingly urban existence and enjoyed parts of it, but for many years, I dreamed of returning to a place of nature. My family, like many others living in Toronto, made regular weekend journeys out of the city to a cottage on Lake Muskoka, 120 miles northwest of the city. For me, the cottage was another gateway to the natural world. The early cottagers of the 1950s seemed to be more sensitive to nature and were content to paddle a canoe and to sit on the dock and wonder at the spectacle of sunsets. They felt privileged when they heard the call of the loons in the moonlight.
Trees have a special significance since our distant primate ancestors all lived in, or at least, slept in trees. Children spontaneously climb trees and want to build tree houses. Adult humans seldom climb trees because they are too heavy and lack the upper body strength to climb easily. Our bodies have adapted to the ground. Our legs are heavier and stronger than our arms.
We like the waterfront because we need the water to drink and wash. We feel good when water is close and enjoy the water flowing and waves breaking on a beach. Lakes, rivers and oceans offer essentials: water food, cooling and cleaning. We like beaches because we can see long distances and beaches are relatively safe. Humans swim readily and learn to capture fish, gather seaweed and following the lead of gulls and crows, break open shells to eat the molluscs within.
Sand is soft and the rocks on the beach are often small and smooth. Children spontaneously pick up small rocks and throw them or arrange them in patterns on the sand. Pieces of rock and wood are combined with sand and water to make ephemeral constructions. The connection with these basic elements of earth, wood, stone and water are deep within.
Unlike our arboreal kin, we have adapted to grasslands and rocky terrain. We like to live on the edge of forests. We like to see mountains in the distance. Dense forests and jungles are not easy homes and forest dwellers tend to be nomadic since they routinely kill all the game and consume all the edible plants in a local area and have to move on.
We want to sleep in a clearing or adjacent grassy plain. We like a little
shelter in wide-open spaces; logs are popular on beaches as places to sit and
camp out; not many people choose a patch of bare sand unless there are no
objects in sight; some shelter and cover is desirable. We like to have plants
around us but thin and trim them so that they do not enclose our open spaces.
Humans have often lived in caves and used caves for ceremonies, burials, and
parties – they still do. Humans painted cave walls using, flower pigments, mud
and blood. The earliest pictures were of other animals and human hands were
placed on the wall to be outlined with pigment.