Children who have spent unsupervised time in nature grow into more confident adults – adults who feel at home in the world. As children play, they make no distinction between the natural world and themselves; they have an innate sense of themselves as belonging to and part of Nature.
Children naturally connect and commune with animals as their “friends.” This is why they are drawn to animal toys and cartoon figures. Though there are frightening and dangerous animals in the world, this is knowledge that children acquire later – and is a modification of the basic feeling of trust and safety they have with their animal companions.
Too often in modern culture, “growing up” means becoming increasingly alienated from Nature and from our natural selves. A key part of saving our planet is changing our relationship with it, befriending it, feeling at home in the natural world.
Since most of us live in cities these days, it is easy to assume that a connection with nature is not possible, since nature is “out there” somewhere – in a national park or wilderness area. But nature is as close as our own animal bodies which breathe in rhythm with all of the living world. We carry within our very cells the history of evolution of life on this planet, and share mitochondrial DNA that is unchanged from our earliest homo sapiens ancestors.
Even in the city we are surrounded with the wild nature of this planet. The Falconer of Central Park is a fascinating book that describes the myriad species of birds that touch down in Central Park in New York City as they annually migrate with the changing seasons. News articles highlight the excitement New Yorkers feel when a raptor builds a nest high on an office building on Wall Street. The activities of the parents as they build the nest and sit on the eggs is eagerly observed, and the birth of the young raptors is celebrated.
Cities have parks, rivers and gardens; wherever you are, the weather is a constant reminder that you are part of a globally interconnected natural system. The wind on your face as you walk from the parking lot to your office building is part of the Earth’s natural spirit that is touching you.
Abandoned city lots are quickly colonized by weeds, trees and shrubs as well as birds and small animals. Cities and suburbs are home to an astonishing array of wildlife. Birds, insects, rodents, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals such as rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons and possums – even deer, coyotes and foxes - make their homes among us. Children are often naturally quite aware of and curious about the animal life they see.
Nature is always around us and within us: the books in Environmental Education point to the importance of educating children (and adults) of their place in the natural world. This breeds self-confidence, wholeness, a sense of community. Knowing that we belong to the natural world changes how we behave. Children who are “ecologically literate” enjoy recycling and taking care of the environment.