In these times of uncertainty and transition, spending time in nature can support us in surprising ways. Nature gives us an opportunity to get to a place where we can be ourselves. This transition can sometimes go unnoticed – it can be a gentle drifting to a more connected place. I bet you have experienced this for yourself: it’s a quieting of our day to day distractions, a release of our lists of “should-dos” and a softening of external pressures. We begin tuning into the natural world, which our bodies and senses have evolved over generations to do. So as our families transition back to school, remember nature is transitioning along side us and offering us a gentler place to be ourselves.
Whether I’m heading out into nature on my own, with my family or leading a family nature program, one simple truth is always revealed: Away from day to day distractions, time in nature can lead us to a more connected place. This truth especially stands out when I’ve arrived in nature feeling rushed, or with building family tensions or maybe feeling overwhelmed in some way. The grounding effect of feeling more connected influences my play experiences with my family in positive ways — leading to more presence in the experiences and sharing more. More reflection on this experience and how a sense of connection is important in our family play experiences is available on the following Urban Wild blog posts: From Tension to Cooperation and Snow Bridges and Nature’s Metaphors
Did you know that the timing of that first ladybug crawling up your arm or spotting your first purple flower, a crocus among the grasses, or geese returning on their migration is a kind of observational phenology? Phenology, in a nutshell, is the study of the timing of seasonal plant and animal changes. I’ve been wanting to nerd out on this topic for a while and now realize we are all natural phenologists…except most of us probably haven’t heard this word before nor do we write down and compare seasonally when we spotted these changes…as some scientists do to collect information on climate (again in a nutshell).
But it’s cool that without naming it, it is something we all do…and started doing at a very young age. To think that observing seasonal change, something important now for farmers, gardeners or in planning your next BBQ, is also something our ancestors did as an important part of their survival as nomads, pastoralists and farmers.
So this spring when you spot the return of a robin on your lawn or the first unfolding of a leaf in your yard, you are engaging in an old tradition that you began as a child. One that inevitably connects us to our past, present and our future.
Phenology = Coolology.
Interested in more phenology for your family?
Join Urban Wild on Facebook at Urban Wild Family Nature Club for some local spring 2020 phenology=coolology posts. You can also learn more and participate in phenology as a citizen scientist with Nature Watch Canada and Plant Watch Alberta.
Rosy cheeks gathering together.
Cold, curious, comfort of the group.
Clouds of breath shaping around our experience
Some growing discomfort from cold and unknown routines
Growing into cheer and engagement
A forest mystery
An animal, a connection.
New friends finding clues in the park.
Our parks, our backyards, our communities.
Places to discover everyday life,
This blog post is inspired by the title of a recent Nature Conservancy of Canada 2018 speaker series exploring our relationship with nature. The session was titled "Nature and Me - Relationship status: It's Complicated".
This title had me intrigued! Status of our relationship with nature? YES - interestingly and uniquely put Nature Conservancy! We are all in a relationship with nature! But how often do we think of it this way or even as a partner in our lives ... with a status? From life sustaining processes to the bath I gave my daughter last night - we are always intimately engaged in this relationship that goes far beyond what we can see or sometimes imagine.
So what is our status? Is our relationship to nature complicated? Maybe, but it's definitely a dynamic relationship - like most relationships. There are times when I am actively and fully "engaged" in my relationship with nature and other times when I feel "separated" and disconnected. Sometimes I just feel "open" to a relationship with nature but my indoor comforts are just too good at the time.
But is it complicated? Sometimes? It strikes me however that when I allocate time to be in nature is when things often feel the most simple. That's why I love it - it gives me a break from day to day distractions and eventually gives me a chance to just be myself. It's a time when my children often experience me at my most grounded ...without one more thing to do before I give them my full attention. And nature facilitates the experience for us all- challenging us, accepting us and connecting us. I can just enter the play or kick back.
What is complicated are all my other relationships that interfere in actually getting out the door. Not necessarily people but things like my phone and other screens, work or less tangible things like my expectations of myself through out the day and my own list of "should - dos". When I think back to when things feel the least complicated, it's when I'm outside sharing in an experience with my family and just having the space to be ourselves. Back to basics. Status: Simple.
Perhaps you're a teacher or parent or someone who cares for the well-being of a child in your life. Maybe you are an inspiring naturalist or someone who recognizes the value of the outdoor world in your own life and you want to inspire others! The book "Sharing Nature with Children" by Joseph Cornell (1998), is dedicated to those who wish to share their love of the natural world — particularly with children. Like others who came before and after Cornell, he reassures that one does not need to know the scientific names of plants and animals to share a valuable nature experience. A quote that inspires and affirms this idea in my work as an Environmental Educator is the following "One transcendent experience in nature is worth a thousand nature facts." David Sobel
For Cornell "The names of plants and animals are only superficial labels for what those things really are. Just as your own essence isn't captured by your name..." (p 15)
I do not want to devalue the scientific or local names of plants and animals here — as they tell a story too. Names can act as a conduit for further appreciation, understanding and communication of nature. If that is the case for you or a child you know a good guide book or the internet can provide an additional level to explore your nature encounters — but is not required to have them!
In "Sharing Nature with Children" Cornell provides activities adults can facilitate to inspire children's learning and love for the natural world. I will not be writing about these activities as it would be rewriting the book itself. To support your adventures I will share five suggestions which Cornell states have helped him over the years. For me, I like to think of these five suggestions as "checking-in" with myself during outdoor adventures with my family or nature inspired programs with families.
They are the following:
1. Teach less, Share more
Go ahead and share what you appreciate, observe or feel in nature. For example what you love about a particular season or what gives you moment for pause and respect for the world around you. Moments of AWE-SOME!!
2. Be Receptive
Be present. Show and model attention to the world around you and the children you are sharing it with. In Cornell's experience, opportunities to communicate often arise from a child's own enthusiasm, interest and questions and your receptivity will atune you to these opportunities.
NOTE TO SELF: As an Environmental Educator, and honestly as a parent, I find this challenging. I often set out on an outdoor adventure having already committed to a "plan" or objective. Here is my new challenge (Thank you Cornell), and perhaps a guide in life: "Your lesson plan will be written for you minute by minute if you tune in with sensitive attention."
3. Focus the Child's Attention without Delay
From the get-go try to get everyone involved right from the start by; sharing observations, feelings, asking questions, pointing out interesting sights, smells and sounds. A key here is not to forget to take interest in their observations too!!
4. Look and Experience First, Talk Later
Let nature's experiences seize the moment!
For example seeing a deer or by allowing time to observe the smaller things with close attention.
(Note to self - DO THIS! Remember how you love the quote on transcendent experiences being worth a thousand nature facts!)
5. A Sense of Joy
Cornell states that your greatest asset in sharing nature with children is your own enthusiasm!
So with these suggestions, or "check-ins" in your back pocket, go and grab your fellow adventurers (and a few snacks) and dare to get your nature grooves on!!
Reflecting on adult roles in nature
Did I only think it or did I say it? Either way my five and half year old son pushed on with his idea. We were exploring a small creek after a fresh dump of snow.
"Let's build a snow bridge across!" he exclaimed as he patted down snow into the trickling water...mitts and all.
It didn't seem possible — the stretch before us was maybe three metres wide and a foot deep in the middle. What did seem possible is getting wet, cold and uncomfortable. Instead of poo- poo'ing his idea, which I considered, I decided to help him out until he discovered why it wouldn't work for himself...or got too wet first. Or so I thought I - in the end a new discovery awaited me!
We gathered and dumped clumps of wet snow at the bank of our project. He patted it down as fast as he could before the snow shipped downstream or disappeared all together.
"Quick!" he said.
I started to throw snow balls from the edge of our snow harvesting site towards my son to pat down onto our budding snow bridge. This was somewhat effective...but mostly fun for both of us. Then we tried rolling a large snow ball so we could just roll it into the creek to pat down but sadly the snow wasn't sticky enough.
Soon, I forgot about the impossible and we set out working together on the possible.
I started packing our red sled full of snow and dumping it before him so he could continue patting it down. He was now on his hands and knees and crawling onto our snow bridge about half way across. He made it to a rock big enough for him to stand on while admiring our success, rosy cheeks and all.
"I feel so alive!" he exclaimed
Eventually he made it to the other side of that creek on his snow bridge that morning. On the other side, my son sat triumphantly in a snow bank kicking snow into the creek.
I stood observing our now narrowing and shrinking bridge.
"It's time. You better hurry before there is no bridge to cross on anymore!" I said, my adult-self returning.
Onto his hands and knees and across he came. A hand, then a knee and whole leg landing into the creek as part of the bridge broke off. Laughing he was now standing on the bank watching our work dissolve into the water.
Wet mitts, knees, a leg, a foot and countless set backs and repairs were all part of our success....hmm I couldn't help but be absorbed in the metaphor of our morning; how Nature can facilitate life's lessons for our children — when given the opportunity.
Or reflecting on my own adult walls of what is possible and my son pulling them down beside me as our snow bridge began to stretch across.
Even more was noticing my son...and myself as our morning efforts began to break off and flow downstream and disappear — there was no disappointment, frustration or tears (which often follows our indoor project mishaps).
I was tickled by the nudge of Nature, having facilitated our morning, now reclaiming it. Leaving us without something material to show but something more stirring and permanent.
Thankful, I left that creek feeling more connected to my son, joyful and wet.
“We make time for soccer practice but we don’t make time or schedule time to just be outside...”.
(Urban Wild Case Study Parent)
Social norms or pressures around how parents should be allocating time can be a challenge for getting our families outside. One Urban Wild parent, during my case study, described this challenge best; “We are conditioned to think that there are other things that we should be doing to take up the time or keep them [children] busy”.
Reflecting on their nature club experience, several parents shared that they would dedicate more time outdoors as a family after developing the following insight: nature is a valuable partner in our family experiences. Nurturing our relationship with the natural world pulls us away from day to day distractions and allows us to engage fully with our family.
Parents observed that the child-nature relationship provided a cure from boredom. This came as a relief and surprise to many parents as their children found activities to keep them busy with very little adult guidance. Also significant was the state of presence or a grounding effect that parents reflected on as a result of their own relationship with the natural world. Ultimately providing families an opportunity to be themselves together — results in an authentic family experience,
I think we can all recognize the value of being present in the moment but how often in our family lives do we achieve this bliss? What are the effects on children today witnessing their parents in a state of constant rush that has been described in literature as “time sickness”- the feeling that there is never enough time?
The state of presence experienced by parents during nature-based family activities can result in positive impressions on children — reinforcing their connection with the natural world. Ultimately, we are recognizing something that has always been available to us in the natural world — the gift of time.