This is a story about how city kids will save the planet.
I am sitting in a circle under a large oak tree in Baltimore City’s Patterson Park with fifteen 1st graders. We pass nature objects around the circle and they use their five senses to explore each object. Then Jamal spots something moving in the bare spot of ground near his hand. Everyone stops and crawls over to surround him. “It’s a worm!” Allison cries as if she’d spotted an exotic creature.
Everyone wants to touch so I gently pick up the wriggling earthworm and hold it safely in my hand.
“Let’s look,” I offer, and quickly pull small plastic magnifiers from my cargo pants pocket. Sitting back in a circle, children eagerly accept the lenses and use them to discover close details of the worm as I move from one child to the next.
They use the magnifiers exactly as I showed them in a 2 second demo (“Hold it up to your eye and lower your head to the object”). Soon afterwards, they ask me to release the earthworm back into the soil; its home, its “habitat.” We all stand up and begin our walk back to school observing squirrels running up and down trees, breathing crisp autumn air, and feeling the afternoon sun on our shoulders.
When we invite young children to observe and use all of their senses to explore the natural world, we invite an experience that touches a place deep inside them.
Renowned entomologist E.O. Wilson coined it “biophilia,” which basically means that we are hard-wired in our DNA to connect with nature. Our job as adults is to facilitate that connection for every child, to open the way for possibilities to follow–awareness, active play, education, and responsible, caring behavior. We can make these experiences age appropriate, thoughtful, place-based, and relevant. And if as adults we’ve become disconnected from nature, this is our chance to become part of the story, too.
What a gift! Providing children with the opportunity to move their bodies, exercise their minds, open their hearts, and breathe fresh air. Empower kids to grow their own food or create a garden habitat for wildlife and SEE WHAT HAPPENS! I have. Children give back. They give to each other. They smile.
When children look and really observe nature, they are expressing gratitude. They are honoring what exists. They are present in the moment, experiencing an authentic connection. We don’t have to “teach” kids to take care of the environment. If you appreciate something, you want to take care of it.
This story may seem simple but it’s also intricate — like a web, like the web of life. If children begin to think of themselves as part of this web, they will become the guardians of life, all life. As Eco-architect Bill McDonough proposes, “loving all of the children of all of the species for all time.” That’s the challenge.
If we give kids the chance to connect with nature, they will thrive in that relationship.They will seek the “green” jobs and create new ones. They will restore urban green spaces. They will invent new stories about a hopeful future. That’s a story I want to hear.
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