John Muir said,
"Few are altogether blind and
deaf to the sweet looks and voices of nature. There is a love
of wild Nature in everybody…."
Many adults may have forgotten this love, but in children
that connection is not lost. Children, who may not enjoy such
quiet activities as guided visualizations or imaginary play, love
to go outside and relate to the natural world around them.
I once had a very
small fourth-grade-class who loved to be outside. We often hiked
and many days even did our reading outside. But there were two
or three children in the class who didn’t receive much spiritual
benefit from being outside. They were too busy running, yelling,
and whacking at plants with sticks.
So I read aloud
to the class a book called The
Tracker by Tom Brown, an expert on nature survival and tracking.
The story describes his early training with his best friend and
his best friend’s grandfather, an Apache. The book is just “macho”
enough to appeal to the “tough guys” in the class, but also communicates
enormous respect for nature and the importance of taking time
to be quiet and observe.
that book, the class emulated the children in the book in our
outdoor activities, for example, getting as close as possible
to animals or birds without disturbing them. I have such wonderful
memories of special times in nature with those nine and ten-year-olds.
I remember the time the entire class spontaneously lay down on
the ground in the parking lot (!) to watch cloud formations at
recess and insisted I join them. Another great experience was
the time we went down to a nearby creek to picnic, and it started
to rain. I was all for going back to the classroom, but no, the
children reminded me that the kids in the book wouldn’t let a
little rain or snow stop them.
So we went down
by the water and crouched and huddled under banks and trees. We
spread out to find dry spots and ate silently, watching the birds
and insects and the rain on the water. We were all so content
just to be there; it was one of those unforgettable moments. The
only word I can think of to describe how it felt is holy.
Setting the Stage
How can you help a child have an experience of peace and oneness in nature?
First of all, create the
calmness and receptivity needed before starting one of the
activities. Take one child at a time if you want him to tune into
you and nature. If you take more, the children will probably be
more interested in each other than in the natural world around
them. (Remember, the experiences I describe with my class happened
after months of working
with them as a group.)
Allow time to
decompress and establish a comfort zone with the child
before you ask for quiet
observation or introspection. Listen to what the child wants to
tell you about the day; if the child is restless, take a vigorous
bike ride or walk first.
a quiet place where you won’t see anyone
so you can commune with nature, not other people. This shouldn’t
be too difficult with all the wonderful parks in Portland. Now
that it’s daylight late in the evening, you could try going out
on a weekday after work.
Now you are ready
to draw the child’s attention to the beauty
around you by pointing out details in the rocks, plants, or trees
you’re passing. Next, get
the child’s concentration engaged by asking him to point out
an oval leaf or a spotted pebble; to count how many colors of
tree trunks she can see; or some other detail you
observe (see how it works to get you more fully present too?).
Two activities for you to try
Find a lovely
spot to sit and suggest a 5-10 minute, depending on the child’s
age, silent bird count. Ask that she listen for bird songs, and each
time she hears a new one to count it on her fingers. You’ll do
the same and at the end, you’ll see if you counted the same number.
Avoid looking at each other and comparing numbers during the silence:
The point is for her to be receptive, not to be communicating
with you. See what happens next naturally; perhaps you’ll both
want to sit expanding your awareness into other nature sounds,
such as the whispering grass, or wind in the trees. Linger there
as long as the child is calm.
Now why don’t
you go “meet a tree”? Blindfold the child, and
walk him to a tree you have pre-selected. Ask him to hug the tree,
feel for lichen, moss, or insects, put his cheek next to its bark,
listen to its trunk, and talk to it silently. Give him as much
time as he wants to explore after each instruction. Then lead
him away from the tree ten or twenty yards down the trail and
remove the blindfold. Ask him to find his tree! This is an amazing
activity; some children feel such a relationship to their tree
that they will want to visit it time and time again. (Both of
these activities come from naturalist Joseph Cornell’s Sharing Nature with Children, a book of
exercises designed to help children develop sensitivity through
goal at the heart of most religions is to
expand the awareness beyond one’s self to realize oneness with
all. Of all the methods I have used to inspire children to
become quiet and have an inward experience of awe or oneness with
creation, the two I have found to be most universally successful
are stories (I will discuss story in the next column) and Nature.
In Nature this expansion
of consciousness occurs “naturally!”
Susan Dermond is the Director of the Living Wisdom School
and a minister of Ananda Sangha. For more information about Living
Wisdom schools, call 503 626-3403. If you try any of the suggestions
in her columns and want to communicate with her about it, you
can e-mail her at email@example.com.