As farmers, food advocates, and land stewards, my husband and I knew that raising our daughter to love and protect the earth would be central in our lives. It’s one thing to know what’s important to your family; the real challenge is to work to live your values in a way that’s accessible to your children. When Ella was just a baby, I read Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s classic Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, and this idea struck me to my very core: “Dr. Ginott . . . posed this question: What is our major goal as parents? . . . It seems to me that our large goal is to find the ways to help our children to become human and strong . . . [to show] the child how to be a mensch” ( mensch is a Yiddish word that translates to a human who has become human through good deeds). I come back to this idea again and again as a mother – it’s not my role to simply make my child happy, or smart, or make her life easier, but to help her become a human, which is achieved through good deeds (or “right action”, in Buddhism). Becoming a human has many facets, of course, but loving and honoring the Earth and her inhabitants is a crucial one, especially in a time where so many do not love and honor her.
In our culture, which is increasingly separated from nature, weather, and the seasons, we must truly make an effort to connect our children to the earth. With climate chaos evident all around us, ignoring this beautiful part of childhood can come with a very high cost. We, our children and their children have the enormous task of helping restore the balance of the natural world (or at the very least trying not to disturb it further). In order to take on this work, first we must love the earth. The following are ideas we have gleaned from many wonderful sources and use in our own home. I hope they will bring joy and wonder to your family as well.
Take it Outside
This is a great place to start, and super easy. Whatever your family enjoys doing together, whenever you can, take it outside!
* Eat meals together outside: on the grass, a blanket, or at a picnic table.
* Read books outside.
* Take art projects outside, and use natural materials in your projects.
* Fold your laundry outside, chop your vegetables for dinner, call your relatives on the phone outside.
* Go swimming in a lake or river instead of a pool.
* Do your daily lessons for school or homework outside.
Even in cold weather, with appropriate clothing, try your best to spend time outside every day. You’ll notice a calming effect on the whole family. (Worried about getting sick in cold or inclement weather? Many studies have shown that time outdoors while dressed warmly actually strengthens the immune system.)
So, whatever you have planned for today, take it outside – to your yard, a nearby park, or a longer excursion.
Bring Back the Seasons
In America today, it is possible to live almost completely outside of the seasons. We can buy any fruit or vegetable at any time of the year. We can travel from heated or air-conditioned house to car to work or school and back again. We may think we are only gaining comfort, but we lose many pleasures when we live our lives outside of the seasons.
* Try eating fruits and vegetables when they are fresh in your region, and viewing ones grown far away as the rare treats they are. (Find a local farmer’s market or CSA farm here.) This may seem like a big sacrifice at first, but it truly increases your family’s enjoyment. Asparagus that was picked yesterday by a neighbor will always taste better than asparagus shipped from Chile, especially when you’ve been eagerly anticipating it since last spring! After even a few weeks of eating more fresh, local foods, you’ll find that the supermarket versions taste like cardboard (and have about that much nutrition). Also, eating seasonally does not have to be all or nothing – start with a few foods and expand from there. Some of the foods which lose the most through refrigeration and shipping are berries, tomatoes, and salad greens. An extra benefit is that you may find your children (and yourself) enjoying foods you thought you didn’t like – I don’t like eating old, nutrient-deficient veggies either!
* Take a few moments each week to note seasonal changes with your children (“Look, the fireflies are here! They’ll only be with us for a few months, and then they’ll be gone until next summer . . .”).
* Take pleasure in seasonal activities – what is special in your area this season? You can take children berry picking, swimming in a river or lake, or camp out (even just in your backyard) this summer.
* Seasonal nature tables can be a beautiful way to bring nature inside, and to encourage your children to see a flow between inside and outside.
I’m sure you expected this suggestion. It is obvious, but also important. Gardening not only brings children outside, it connects children to the earth with all of their senses, and perhaps most importantly, gives them a setting where they can nurture the living earth. Even in a city apartment, you can plant seeds in window pots, or perhaps find a community garden nearby.
* When gardening with children, especially very young ones, set yourselves up for success. Choose plants that grow easily and quickly, and produce impressively. Peas, pumpkins, zucchinis, and berries are all favorites. Choose some for guaranteed success, and let your child choose some that appeal to them (this is their garden, after all).
* Plant in the sunniest spot you can find (the place in your yard or home that receives the most hours of sun throughout the day), and use compost generously. Water your plants well, especially young seedlings (children love the task of watering).
* Plant flowers and herbs as well as food, and you will attract butterflies, bees, and birds (sunflowers are always a hit with birds and children alike).
* Give your gardener real, appropriately sized tools ( gloves, watering can, a trowel is a great “mini shovel”) to do their work. If you have a larger garden as well, make it easy for them to know where the walkways are by putting straw on paths and leaf or bark mulch in the beds (or vice versa – you want a clear visual signal of where they can walk).
* For a long-term project, plant a fruit tree with your child. It will grow as they do, and soon will provide incredible fresh fruit for your family, as well as a beauitful way to see the passage of time.
* Finally, make the garden all the more enticing by creating natural playspaces . . .
Our world, and our children’s world, is mostly machine made. Most of us live with buildings, cars, furniture, clothes, food, and toys made by machines. One way to remind ourselves and our children of our connection to the earth is by emphasizing natural playspaces and playthings.
Many parents have experienced the power of our children’s play outside – the freedom and creativity it allows. We can cultivate and encourage this by creating some special outdoor spaces for (and with) our children.
* This can be as simple as a tree swing, a sandbox, or a slide. Try using natural materials as you create or purchase these.
* Plant a sunflower house or bean teepee.
* Bring the earth inside, with toys made from natural materials. Very young children truly absorb their surroundings, so let us try to offer them the warm living qualities of wood, wool, and cloth instead of cold lifeless plastic. Toys from nature are also free and abundant (which makes them easy to share): acorns, wooden blocks cut from logs and sanded, rocks, pinecones, birds nests . . .
Less Facts, More Wonder
Many of us grew up in a generation when global warming, endangered species, and environmental devastations like strip mining were becoming mainstream news, and starting to be taught in schools. As parents, we have anxiety about these issues, which may be part of our motivation for teaching our children about the earth’s beauty. Our culture also greatly values facts. It doesn’t seem like enough to enjoy a flower, unless we also know its scientific name.
I feel that our children will learn about these serious issues soon enough. For as long as we can, the most important fact we can teach them is that the earth is our Mother, we are part of her, and we love her. This can start as simply as the words we use. At our house, we talk about Mother Earth, Father Sun, Mother Moon, and the Star Babies. This was awkward for me at first, but feels more and more natural. (My daughter, by the way, sees no conflict with there being two mothers – after all, she knows a lot of mothers already.)
A small child can learn to parrot facts and information about these issues, but they do not have the resources to act on such anxiety-producing information. After all, if we struggle as adults with these global problems, imagine how enormous they must feel to a child. Your child will have plenty of time to learn the names of birds (and if they are excited about learning them, by all means, pursue it). Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers to all your children’s questions, this is a great opportunity to learn something together. Our main focus might be simply being joyful in nature, seeing the beauty, hearing the birds’ songs, feeling the delicious soil beneath our feet.
In the short term, strengthening your family’s connection to the Earth will give all of you the joys of sun and rain and harvest, the release of energy and breath, and a playmate who is always ready and available. In the long term, you will give all of us the gift of a child, then an adult, who loves and cares for the Earth like their Mother. And now, I’ve got to go – there’s a preschooler and some soil calling my name.
Heaven on Earth by Sharifa Oppenheimer
Sunflower Houses : Inspiration from the Garden – A Book for Children and Their Grown-Ups by Sharon Lovejoy
The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Ed Smith
Farmer John’s Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables by Farmer John Peterson
Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon
The Nature Corner: Celebrating the Year’s Cycle with a Seasonal Tableau by M. V. Leeuwen and J. Moeskops
Adrie Lester and her family live on a wee little farm in western MA, where they practice loving their Earth and community through their work with Wheatberry Bakery and Farm, and Pioneer Valley Heritage Grain CSA. You can find her at her blog Fields and Fire.