My childhood memories of nature include holding soft baby kitties, bicycling on the dusty gravel road, watching ants in the grass, hanging upside down in the swing in the big oak tree, collecting rocks, and digging tunnels in snow drifts. What are your favorite outdoor memories? Did you know that those experiences, in an unstructured, extended time frame, form the foundation of curiosity, learning and development of empathy? Scooping and dumping sand, making mud pies and stacking wood scraps were how you might have begun to learn physics and mathematics? Climbing a tree, running on uneven ground and carrying branches help a child develop body awareness, strength and visual spatial skills. Want your kid to be able to parallel park when he learns to drive? Give him outdoor experiences manipulating large natural materials and chances are he’ll be at the head of his driver’s ed – or graphic design – class. Kids also learn to manage risk and problem solve when they have early experiences in natural settings. Pokémon Go the virtual reality game may be a way to get kids outdoors, however unless they pay attention to the surroundings and explore those spaces, it does not substitute for actual experience with nature. Geocaching is another way for families to explore the out of doors.
I’ve been a certified Nature Explore trainer since 2009. Thousands of Iowa early childhood professionals – teachers, child care providers, naturalists, parks and rec staff and parents – have learned to use tested design principles to help children connect to nature. Imagine my joy when I was invited to participate in a research project on Nature Explore backyards in Iowa City. It was magical to watch families embrace the concepts and open their backyards to transformation. My memory of watching a toddler explore sound in his family’s new outdoor ‘classroom’ sustains me whenever I do a design consultation or teach a workshop. Excerpts from that research are in the book At Home with Nature.
My own backyard contains the Nature Explore principles and I’m having fun seeing how they will change over time as my 16 month old granddaughter grows up. Watching her pick and eat berries for the first time, check out the wren’s nest and sing back to the momma and papa birds, stack river stones, fill a pail with pinecones, turn sea shells over and over in her tiny hands and swing in the mosquito netting hammock all fill my heart with gratitude and hope for her future.
How do you help your kids connect to nature?
I can still hear my grandmother saying the prayer before a meal. I can still hear my father saying the same prayer. I taught the same prayer to my children and grandchildren. In fact if I am rushed before a meal and forget, one of the grandkids will remind me of the prayer. Do you have a similar ritual in your family? So what’s my point?
It is really a simple, yet powerful, concept – rituals. Do not minimize the importance of rituals in your home. These rituals, similar yet unique in each family, have a significant impact on a child’s development of faith.
Let’s think about some other rituals you might observe. Perhaps you set up a Nativity at Christmas or light candles at Chanukkah. Maybe there are bedtime prayers or a scaled down activity schedule on the Sabbath. Religious symbols might be placed in the home. Some rituals revolve around food – eating kosher, having fish on Friday, giving up chocolate for Lent. This is just a small sampling of rituals in the home but should give you an idea of what I mean.
Granted, religious services can be part of a child’s spiritual training. But what happens in the home is part of a child’s daily life; it’s up close and personal. Home rituals also give you as the parent a chance to model (notice how I weave that concept into most topics) your own beliefs.
Spiritual development in children… yep it’s part of their natural development. It’s part of their moral and cultural development. We didn’t just pick this topic randomly. We selected it purposely because just like physical development and social development, it is a part of your child that will continue to grow and develop over time. It’s the part of your child that plays into how they begin to make sense of their world and the people in it. It’s the part of their development that shapes their values and beliefs about their families, friends, communities and nations.
How then can we foster a healthy spiritual development? How can we help to answer their questions about their world in a positive way? How can we nurture values and beliefs and children’s spiritual development? Spiritual and moral development can be a daunting and abstract concept but as I was looking through various resources I came across this poem and thought I would share.
What is Spirituality?
delighting in all things
being absorbed in the present moment
not to attached to ‘self’ and
eager to explore boundaries of ‘beyond’ and ‘other’
searching for meaning
open to more?
Spirituality is like a bird; if you hold it to tightly, it chokes; if you hold it too loosely, it flies away. Fundamental to spirituality is the absence of force.
– Rabbi Hugo Gryn
What are ways that you nurture spiritual development in your child?
Questions about religion can be challenging for parents. You may be at ease explaining your own beliefs. But are you equality at ease with probing questions, especially about a religion or belief system different than your own? How parents respond when children ask questions about religion and spirituality can impact their youngsters’ behavior.
During April, we will discuss how parents can help children as they begin asking spiritual questions. As we discuss the research on this topic, join the conversation on the blog. Tell us about your own attitudes about religion and how you are guiding your child in developing a belief system.