Walking the Spirit of the Land
A Guide to Introducing Children to Nature
 By Tsolagiu M.A. RuizRazo



Nature can be an excellent resource for teaching children about many subjects, including respect for the environment and for other people. Nature also offers possibilities for healing children who are challenged and provides a sense of balance, health, tranquility, and spiritual connectedness to children and parents alike.

When encouraged to inter-act with nature at a young age, children learn quickly about their environment and, as they grow older, show great curiosity and reverence for nature. A good time to begin having children interact with nature is at age two because this is when they become intensely interested in their natural surroundings.

Remaining aware of your attitude toward nature, especially how you speak about it to two-year-olds, can strongly influence their early views of the natural world and willingness to interact with it in pleasurable ways.

When parents say any negative things about nature, their words have a lasting effect on children. For example, a parent might make remarks such as "the bugs might bite you," or "the bees might sting you."  Children, remembering such statements, may develop a fear of going outdoors.

You can start teaching young children about their environment and to have respect for all living things in nature by slowly showing them simple objects such as stones and flowers. Then as children become older you can introduce them to a range of natural objects by taking them on discovery walks, and participating in other outdoor activities.

Arranging activities in nature is a good way to teach children about many aspects of life, including colors, textures, smells, and physical characteristics. For example, when the children ask what color the sky is, you can teach them about other things that are blue. Such conversations stimulate their minds and imaginations and evoke within them a sense of wonder.

You can do this in any natural environment. If you live near the ocean or a lake, you could walk the beach together, collect seashells, count the waves rolling in, talk about underwater life, and help identify aquatic plants or birds.

If you don't live near the water, you can walk together in the yard or in the woods, and have the children close their eyes, listen deeply, and describe what they hear. Here you can talk about such things as deer, bears, squirrels, rabbits, birds, bugs, insects, flowers, and trees, focusing on such topics as how big they are, how they smell and look, and the fact that they have feelings just like people, so they can also learn the value of life.

On your walks you can encourage the children to notice how the wind feels on their skin and how it blows differently from day to day, sometimes being soft and gentle while other times hard and forceful. On rainy days you can take them outdoors to see how the rain feels as you swirl around with your arms outstretched. Then bring them indoors, wrap them in towels, serve them a warm drink, and ask them to draw or talk about what they have just experienced.

In addition to teaching children about the qualities of the environment and nature's creatures, during your activities in nature you can also teach them about ecology and conservation. For example, you can instruct them in how not to dirty the earth by throwing paper on the ground, by demonstrating the proper way of disposing garbage. And you can tell them about the importance of taking care of Mother Earth so she will heal and be able to give people a healthier life.

There are also many ways to teach children about nature in more social settings. While traveling together by car, bus, or train, you can talk to them about the scenery you are passing and ask them to do a short project using paper, pencils, and crayons you have packed.

One of the most enjoyable ways I like to teach about nature is at birthday parties. After the children eat ice cream and cake and play games, I take them outside and ask them to form a circle around a basket I have placed on the grass. Then they take turns coming into the center of the circle and picking out of the basket a piece of colored paper on which I have written things to do that are associated with the natural world.

The paper might say, "Be a seed and grow into a beautiful flower," encouraging the child to act out the instruction in his or her own way. This activity both inspires creativity and provides educational impressions.

There are many ways you can teach children about nature in school environments too. You can get permission from the principal to bring in animals or plants to teach the children about their characteristics. Or you can start a school garden, having the children, parents, and even teachers pitch in and introducing different lessons as the plants grow.

For example, children can be shown how to work the soil, how to grow plants for food, how to use plants for healing, and how to take care of the earth. Such a project fosters a caring attitude about the earth, helps children learn and care about what they eat - including how food is grown and its nutritional qualities - and encourages them to understand both the medicinal aspects of individual plants and nature's ability as a whole to be calming and curative, especially in urban settings.

Nature's gift of healing makes it one of the most effective tools for helping children with challenges, such as ADHD. Nature speaks to such children in ways they need and can understand. And it offers sanctuaries where they can feel happy and learn hands-on therapeutic ways.

Recently, the parents of a ten-year-old boy with ADHD, whom I'll call Joel, asked me and my husband to work with him because they didn't know how to help him. As we watched Joel's restlessness, it became apparent that his parents were having difficulty coping with him. We then asked them to take a walk, leaving Joel alone with us for a while.

After they left, we escorted Joel outdoors and asked him about his likes and dislikes in school, at home, and with his friends. Then as we set off on a nature discovery walk, he started picking plants and asking us about them with excitement in his eyes. Following up on his interests, we told him how to respect the plants he was picking and to consider asking the plants' permission before harvesting others.

He became so interested he asked if he could return for more nature discovery walks. When we told his parents about his enthusiasm for learning about plants, they were thrilled, and during the next several days we brought the three family members closer by encouraging them to share what their son enjoyed.

By the time of Joel's fourth visit, his parents had learned the value of incorporating into their daily routine nature activities  that allowed them to be together and better communicate as a family with less tension and more joy.

As parents and teachers in our society, we have an obligation to help children understand that we are all part of nature, and that it fulfills our needs. My Cherokee culture teaches that every living thing has a spirit.

When, together with children, we walk with the spirit of the land, taking time to experience our surroundings - such as how a soaring hawk makes us feel as if our spirit soars - we maintain a harmony with nature that the children will absorb. This sense of harmony will serve them well in leading loves of respect for all people and the earth.

Tsolagiu M.A. RuizRazo lives with her husband, three wolves and two dogs on their thirty-seven acres of wooded land in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. A Cherokee Wolf Clan elder, Tsolagiu is a mother, grandmother, and the award-winning author of "Tomorrow's Children: A Cherokee Elder's Guide to Parenting." To learn more, visit: www.whitewolfwoman.com  


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