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Look Up and Listen

Originally appears in the Spring 2014 issue

THE ENTRANCE TO OUR nature preschool in Milwaukee, Wisconsin sits just off a busy road. But once you enter the grounds and begin the long and winding drive towards the building, the city drops away and trees bend forward as if in greeting. There’s a prairie, a field of grass, and often there are turkeys roaming around in search of seeds. Often they stand in the middle of the road blocking traffic, looking entirely unconcerned.

As soon as you turn in the driveway, we try to tell our preschool families, why not turn off the radio? Notice what’s around you. Notice the changes from week to week, the green on the leaves turning gold and red, then suddenly the branches are coated in layers of cold white frosting. Use these moments to exhale, we say, and try to be in the moment.

One of our goals in saying this is to get our students ready to be at nature preschool. Not only do we love it when they come to school eager to tell us that they just saw a deer, or heard a woodpecker, we also appreciate when the kids come to school feeling happy. But another goal is to get the entire family to pause. We know too well that many of our students are racing to get to school on time, that there might be an older sibling who has to get to school, or, in the case of our afternoon programs, perhaps they just had lunch in their car. We understand just how hard it is for families to slow down, to drive the 15-mile-an-hour speed limit, to turn off the music, and to look up, and listen. But we still ask them to try.

During a typical day at nature preschool, the children play, explore, touch, hike, eat, sing, listen to stories, get muddy, laugh… in short, they are allowed to be children, to be silly, and to interact with the natural world in ways that will help them to grow in confidence and capabilities.

But they are also asked to listen. To sit. And simply to breathe. Sometimes this means lying down under a sugar maple tree during the peak of autumn, looking up at the bright yellow canopy and inhaling the October air. Sometimes it means lying face down in the snow, tasting, and sniffing the frost covered ground. Sometimes we visit Lake Michigan, and sit in stillness, watching the waves. And when we return in winter, we sit again, and hear silence.

balancing on log

Giving children opportunities for silence and stillness feels more important than ever as their lives are filled with technology, and their days packed with activity. They are busier than ever, and yet increasingly disconnected with the natural world around them. As Richard Louv writes in Last Child in the Woods; “Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. That’s exactly the opposite of how it was when I was a child. As a boy, I was unaware that my woods were ecologically connected with any other forests. Nobody in the 1950s talked about acid rain or holes in the ozone layer or global warming. But I knew my woods and my fields; I knew every bend in the creek and dip in the beaten dirt paths. I wandered those woods even in my dreams. A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.”

Ask any adult with a passion for the environment how he or she first developed this love of nature and the answer is almost always, “I played outside as a child.” This is significant. A love of nature does not develop because of a teacher’s lecture on invasive species; or because of a class field trip to the woods once a year. It comes from learning to climb a tree without help; from dropping a stone into a puddle and seeing the resulting rings. It comes from those moments in between: in between trips in the car from home to school to the grocery store, and in between smartphones and tablets and video games. A love of nature develops when a child has time to study a single patch of dirt, or touch the sticky insides of a dandelion stem, or hear the song of a red-winged blackbird trilling from the reeds.

When I tell people that I think it’s important, as a teacher, to give young children opportunities to experience peace and to develop their spirituality, I am not talking about war or religion. I am talking about reducing anxiety; about easing depression; about helping children with hyperactivity learn to feel calm and in control. I am talking about giving children opportunities for silence in nature. I am talking about profound and meaningful experiences that cannot be handed over, but must be sought and discovered by each individual.

And I would argue that this is possible even in a climate of testing and overcrowded classrooms, even in urban communities where there isn’t an abundance of nature right outside the window. For years now I have taken live animals into inner-city preschool classrooms, exposing young children for the first time to the slow, quiet pace of a turtle. I ask them to touch the shell, and soon we turn out the lights, grow silent, and simply watch the turtle walk.

Children deserve these moments. They deserve to find comfort in nature, taking refuge in what is small and simple and moves at a slower pace than we do.


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Catherine Koons Hubbard teaches in the Nature Preschool of Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, located just north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.