The following is adapted from David Sobel’s new book, Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors (Sierra Club Books, 2011). In June, he co-led a discussion on “nature deficit disorder,” moderated by Orion staff; an audio recording is available here.
While my daughter, Tara, was an infant, I kept a developmental journal that contained mostly reflections on how parenting was changing me, and ideas for how to be a good dad. But as she entered toddlerhood and began to talk more volubly, my record become more and more focused on how her language was developing, the way it ranged freely through metaphor, and especially how she described what she perceived in her physical world. I was particularly fascinated with the language that emerged during our adventures or play outdoors—at the beach, riding sheep at a farm, on night walks.
Young children’s thinking tends toward synthesis and integration through metaphor. Ecological thinking, or systems thought, then, is intuitive: children’s capacity to make connections allows them to create unusual and telling ideas about ecological concepts—ideas that can manifest themselves through language.
Just as we are becoming more sensitive to the virtues of nearby natural play and eating locally, I want to advocate for “talking local” with our children. By talking local, I mean recycling the indigenous words and ideas children use and applying them in other contexts. Keep a journal, record your children’s metaphors, and then use their unique local dialect to explain the world to them and to yourself.
From feeling comfortable with children getting muddy, to encouraging children to handle worms and frogs or taste spinach fresh from the garden, to supporting nature-based language and stories, the parent’s objective should be to maximize a young child’s sense of bondedness and connection with the natural world. Rather than deluging them with facts and environmental problems, we should be seeking accessible images that help children start to grasp the big picture.
For example, I have often railed against the teaching of the water cycle to young children because it is usually done in a conceptually inaccessible fashion. I once worked with a group of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders who could all recite the water cycle forward and backward. To test their understanding I asked, “When it rains over the ocean, does it rain fresh or salt water?” Almost all of them were adamant that it rained salt water. Clearly, they didn’t really understand the water cycle. These ideas are teachable and accessible, but only with a foundation of appropriate images and then a raft of tangible, concrete experiences to illustrate each element of the process.
In a conversation with Tara, an insight emerged out of walking in the neighborhood and talking about water. What follows is an account from my parenting journal.
APRIL 10, 1990 (3 years, 6 months of age): Tara and I are walking back from our neighbor Mrs. Starr’s house through the woods, a way we have never come before. We cross over a little stream, and I say that the big puddles in our backyard go through a pipe under our driveway and come down to this stream. Tara asks where it goes then. I say it goes down near our friend Solveig’s house (about a half mile away) and then into a big stream, down to a river, and, after a long trip, into the ocean.
“Then it becomes clouds and rain and it falls into our backyard and goes down and around,” I finish.
“Around and around?” Tara asks.
“Yes, just like that, around and around.”
“Like a ring?” (I am not sure whether she’s thinking of a wedding ring or Ring Around the Rosie, but both make sense.)
“Yes, we can call it the water ring.”
She smiled and I could see the idea appealed to her.
That evening at bedtime we were looking at Island Boy by Barbara Cooney. It was too long and not really appropriate for her age, but we looked at the pictures and skimmed the story. It’s about a boy who grows up on a Maine island, becomes an adult, and moves away to live on the mainland, but then, in his advanced years, comes back to the island. In the end, he dies and is buried on the island. Everyone comes to his funeral.
Tara asks, “What happens after he dies?”
My answer wasn’t premade but created at the moment. “His body goes back into the earth to make new soil, and his spirit goes up into the sky to get ready to come back again.”
“Like the water ring?”
“Yes, just like that.”
Tara’s final comment moved me for many reasons. First, I was enchanted by the simple elegance of the metaphor. Here was a set of appropriate images, built on each other, that offered a glimpse of understanding of the water cycle and reincarnation. The “water ring” was created directly out of her experience in the neighborhood—playing in the backyard puddles, damming the water in the roadside ditch, walking home from Mrs. Starr’s house. These concrete experiences, synthesized with a bit of her own language (“Like a ring?”), gave her a developmentally appropriate image for the water cycle. Then, with that image available to her, she could use it to make sense of other processes, like what happens when you die.
Something deep also shifted inside me when she said this; I sensed that this was an epiphany of what parenthood was all about—helping children make sense of the world in ways that are real but graceful, and being shaped, in return, by the child’s wisdom.
For a long time after this, I don’t have any references in my journal to cycles or the water ring. I vaguely recall wondering if the image had evaporated for her. Then, six months later, in early November, the image resurfaced.
We had recently experienced several deaths in our families, and Wendy, my wife, was seeking a way to help resolve the sadness. At dinner, in addition to the normal four place settings, she set a place for each departed soul: on each plate was a picture of one of our deceased family members—Wendy’s father and mother, who had died when she was young, her sister, my sister, my mother, and my father, who had died just a few weeks earlier. For grace, we invited these loved ones to join us.
After dinner, in the darkness, Wendy and Tara went down to the frog pond by Mrs. Starr’s house. Wendy put candles on pine cones, lit them, and floated them out on the black surface of the water. There were six candles, one for each departed soul in the family. As they sat watching the tiny flames floating in the darkness, Tara turned to Wendy and whispered, “The souls go around and around, you know.”
David Sobel, senior faculty in the Education Department of Antioch University New England, consults and speaks widely on environmental education. He is the author, most recently, of Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors, and, previously, of six other books focused on children and nature—including Childhood and Nature and Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, a part of Orion’s Nature Literacy Series. David lives in Harrisville, New Hampshire.