“I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant. Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” (Rachel Carson, “Help Your Child to Wonder”, Woman’s Home Companion, p. 48, July 1956)
Early-childhood education has been rediscovered as the place to begin environmental education, particularly in response to the climate crisis and covid-19. Researchers in multi-national studies are measuring and weighing the positive impacts of “nature” on our youngest; designing rubber-stamps for educational programs that meet their standards, and developing curricula. Young children will be expected to identify birds, moths, and trees. They will learn of the water cycle. And, they will learn that there are poisonous mushrooms, that species are going extinct, and that human pollution is making the planet uninhabitable.
But these attempts to remedy the enormous problems of human impact on non-human life-systems, ecosystems, and food systems need to be filtered through a lens of “how young children learn” if we are to convey values of co-existence and respect to the next generations.
Garden Gate has been running for over fifteen years now, attempting to maintain an ever-creative environment for both children and parents. Why the parents? Our commitment to the “partnership” we build with families, in which we support the work of parents to make choices for their children, create simple routines and rhythms in the household, limit access to screens and noisy commerce, is a commitment to connection. And many of the lessons of “connectedness” we want in our families can be learned if we take time to observe and partake in the world outdoors.
Carson says it most eloquently:
“I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.” (RC, p. 45)
Educating children is not the same as downloading a file. Information does not equal knowledge. If we want our children to be educated, we need to understand how the youngest of them learn. This kind of attention to developmental readiness fits in with Carson’s point that early childhood is the time when we nurture the soil around our children – fertilize it with predictability, low stimulation, appropriate choices, and time together indoors and out.
A quietness is needed in our homes if we are to hear the birdsong, rain, and wind; to sense a storm or a spring morning; to smell the dirt after rain or the heat of summer. We’ll need uncluttered houses and rhythms so that when the full-moon shines outside the window, it will be a wonder. And, if our children are to be able to attend to the miracle of stars and rainbows, they’ll need to have not learned about it in an “educational app”. (I quote the young child on our airplane this winter: “Mom! The airplane wing cuts through the clouds! None of the cartoons I’ve seen are so cool!”)
Simplifying our homes means not just throwing out the junk. It means clearing the way for more time together and feeding the desire to spend time outdoors. Our youngest need to build their relationships to the natural world out of wonder and care, not out of a need to escape or because they’ve learned how endangered it is. Human relationships to other living worlds should be built out of positive experiences in the earliest years so that they become fuel for long lives of constant connection with other humans as well as non-humans. Our grown-up children will know where to go when life gets rough. And they’ll want to help nurture it.
“Help Your Child to Wonder”; Rachel Carson, Women’ts Home Companion, July 1956: