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Spirit and Nature
by Susan Dermond

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…."

Susan Dermond
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.

After reading 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.

Finally, find 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 nature.)

A fundamental 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