Milwaukee Edition

Connecting Kids to the Earth

When we were kids, our childhood neighborhoods became “ours”. The tree that we climbed on a daily basis became “ours”. Our outdoor romping grounds became fused with each one of us. As children we are more talented at the bonding process than we are later in life.

These days, that connection to the planet doesn’t happen automatically. Watching a nature show is not connecting to nature; it is a second-hand experience. Personally connecting to anything requires the equivalent of going “inside” the picture, not just viewing it from the outside.

Our technological culture has on some level fooled us. Our mirror neurons can make us believe that we are connecting to the world when we are on our gadgets. But that is a very “thin” way to connect and it does not truly change us that much; rather, it creates only a quick impact on both ourselves and the world at large.

We bond with people and places best when we truly experience them first-hand. Our whole body needs to be active and our senses—not just our minds—need to register the experience.

When a kid helps to dig a hole to plant a tree, the activity will result in sweat and fatigue. Getting a little tired is good; then the process of digging the hole has had an impact on the child. Notice how, when driving past a tree that a child helped to plant, the head of the child will turn to look in interest at how big the tree has grown. That is because there is now a relationship between the tree and the child; in a way, the child “owns” that little piece of earth. Only by doing things that physically interact with the earth can that happen—games and shows only involve the child mentally.

The feeling of subjective ownership to natural places can help a child grow into an adult that will feel a responsibility towards the planet. We need to have our children in direct contact with the earth. We need them to have first-hand and “first-foot” experiences. None of us, especially children, connect deeply to things when the experiences are second- or third-hand, portrayed on a screen. Those experiences require very little from us.

To help kids connect to the Earth, leave cell phones in the car when hiking in the woods. Children will have a chance to hear the sounds of the pine trees when the wind blows through them. They may actually notice deer tracks next to their own footprints in the mucky path that tells them that it is spring.

Bente Goldstein and her husband, Walter, are proponents of sustainable farming. They worked and raised their children on their 35-acre organic “hobby farm” in East Troy, which they now use in their program FarmWise to teach kids about nature. Bente, originally from Norway, has taught and administered Waldorf Homeschool Enrichment winter programs for over a decade, and was previously program director at “A Week on the Farm”. Walter, a researcher for organic seed development, owns the nonprofit, Mandaamin Institute, in Lake Geneva, and is developing high-nutrition non-GMO corn.

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