LEARNING FROM THE PAST: Envisioning a Nature Connected-future For All Children

About the Author

Michelle Lawton is a mother, educator, and the founder of a nature-based preschool, Stretch the Imagination, in San Francisco, California. Michelle works with children and adults to promote nature connection in programs around the US. She also serves on the Board of the 8 Shields Institute, a global leader in rebuilding nature-connected communities.

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Is there a special place in nature that you remember and can be transported back to in a split second?

Somewhere filled with vivid memories of unsupervised time in the natural world, alone or with a band of children, connecting with animals, and the master of your own adventures?

If so, can you comprehend that this is an experience that is quickly becoming more and more elusive for the youth of our world? This was the challenge presented to us all by Richard Louv as he concluded the 2018 Children & Nature Network Leadership Summit in Oakland, California.

Never before has it seemed so essential to take action in ensuring that future generations have this ability to transport themselves back to a special place in nature from their childhood.

My connection with nature has ebbed and flowed over time as I moved to different cities and navigated different stages. It was acutely reignited in the spring of 2011 when I read Louv’s Last Child in the Woods.

My heart was transported back to the white sandy beaches of my South Carolina childhood. With one long breath, I could close my eyes and overlook the large oyster beds that jutted out from the pungent and thick grey mud that one can only know as a Low Country slack tide. Imagining the sand sifting between my toes, this special place is the landscape of my childhood. It’s hard to believe, but in the early ‘80s, the northern beaches of Hilton Head Island were mostly undeveloped. Untouched and undiscovered, they were the stomping grounds where our adventures unfolded, unaccompanied and set free for hours.

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While reading Last Child in the Woods, it struck me that a childhood like mine was becoming harder and harder to ensure for our children. At that moment, I envisioned the Natural Classroom in our preschool, Stretch the Imagination, located in the heart of San Francisco. With a mission of getting children into nature, our educators head into the Presidio Forest weekly, rain or shine, wandering and playing. This consistent time is essential for evolving this relationship. I wanted to ensure that nature wasn’t a yearly field trip but a routine. In reflection, I think this mission was important however it was incomplete. This all changed when I met Jon Young, founder of 8 Shields, and was introduced to the idea of mentoring children into connection.

Mentoring Deep Nature Connection

This concept that recreating in nature and educating about nature are very different from connecting to nature, was a paradigm shift in our entire program.

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Think about it this way, all those years I spent in nature definitely started a thread of connection to the natural world. But, what if someone was pulling on my stories and questioning my adventures, a mentor to guide and facilitate my deeper connection? Would I have grown in collaboration with the natural world, never allowing for times of disconnection?

Through simple core routines, the secret to connecting deeply can be unleashed. Routines rooted deeply in the historic traditions of many indigenous cultures and alive in the pages of what I consider the “bible of nature connection.” It’s called Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, and I think it’s an essential tool for anyone mentoring others into connection.

Birds as Teachers of Connection

There is, however, one routine that is especially captivating and quickly brings children into a deep connection. We have adapted this practice for children as young as two years and with great success. It’s called Bird Language and there is nothing more intriguing to a child than implying they can communicate with animals. It acts as the magical tool that captures their imagination while delivering them into a deep relationship with their local landscape. It can be practiced in the forest or on the busy streets of an urban center. In fact, some of my most interesting bird sits happened outside a buzzing coffee shop in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District.

Listening for Bird Language hooks children with the first stories of the “Ninja-like” predator who terrorizes the songbird realm. They learn to feel the oppressive silence as the Cooper’s Hawk flies onto the landscape and all songbirds ditch for cover. Heightened awareness infiltrates the experience as they come to understand the panicked calls vs. the melodic song of a feeding sparrow.

While some experiences are common, others deliver remarkable memories that leave the children abuzz for days. One such day a group was out on the landscape, exploring El Polin Spring in the Presidio Forest. This was their third and final year in preschool, and El Polin was a place these children visited weekly.

On this day, they were captivated by a young family of ducks, enamored with the young ducklings. Later, just feet away, they heard the adult duck squawking wildly.

As they ran over, a large red-tailed hawk flew off with a young duckling clasped tightly in its claws. For a moment, all the children stared in complete silence, truly struck by what had just happened.

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The children announced loudly what they had seen, animated and alive as they retold the story. They expressed immediate sadness for the duckling. To the teachers’ amazement, they quickly started talking about how the red-tailed hawk also had to feed its young. They knew this hawk well, observing it for over two years. They knew it also had a nest and assumed it had young hungry hawks. The conversation carried back into the classroom and the story was told for days as they processed the experience. We were all intrigued by their acceptance of this event as evidence of a bird’s life in the Presidio.

This core routine of “Bird Language,” combined with storytelling, games, and gratitude, is a veritable map to deep nature connection. Our community travels through a cyclical journey of awareness, empathy, fun, and reverence for the natural world that leaves them forever tied to the landscape.

Whether recognizing poison oak throughout the seasons or learning the rains bring forth Banana Slugs, each child emerges more empathetic and connected. Slimy, yellow creatures that might otherwise bring recoil present a treasure hunt of empathy as our students keep them off the trails and protected.

In the end, this weekly journey always concludes with a bird sit. A simple practice, done over time and consistently, is both a meditation and a journey in heightened awareness. It connects the entire community, continuously evolving the routine to include whole families. Bird language is a practice that can be used anywhere there are birds, and birds are everywhere!

And in the end, I still reflect back on the challenge offered at the conference in May…

If we can imagine that special place from our own childhood, that connection to nature that sits deep in our hearts, can we allow a world where our future generations are deprived of this same connection?

Learn more with 8 Shields’ free Family Rewilding Guidebook.

Photo credits: Stretch the Imagination

Additional Reading & Resources

What is Nature-Deficit Disorder?

NATURE AS TEACHER: A Transformative Experience

LESSONS FROM SWEDEN: It Takes a Village to Raise an Outdoor-Loving Child

NATURE IS THE ULTIMATE SENSORY EXPERIENCE: A Pediatric Occupational Therapist Makes the Case for Nature Therapy

The Great Fear of the Great Outdoors

NATURE SENSE: Tuning into Nature’s Operating Manual

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  1. As always, you are an inspiration!

  2. This is a wonderful article
    Many thanks

  3. Thank you!


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