It goes without saying that it is terribly important to match the nature activity to the age and developmental stage of the child, and because the field is so new, even experienced professionals can sometimes miss the mark by a wide margin.
As a parent, watch out for nature programs that are really craft activities in disguise. There is nothing wrong with making caterpillars out of empty egg cartons, but be clear about the lesson: is it about developing fine motor skills, about nurturing reverence and joy, or about the ability to generate big questions about the caterpillar you just found in the garden?
Watering the seeds of joy
At the preschool level, it is our job to find “a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground”. It is to help toddlers grow in their delight of wild things, to help young children fall ever more deeply in love with nature, and to create rich and indelible experiences that will nourish children for a lifetime. It’s about real life fairy gardens, ladybug songs that come alive and fly away, and trying to catch a glimpse of that elusive Jack Frost or Peter Cottontail. At the preschool level, nature education is all about cultivating delight, generating a sense of wonder and building powerful imaginations.
Testing and Tasting
As children get older, and enter elementary school, a good fit might be a deeper exploration of the food link, as parents of this age group have more time to devote to school gardens, children start to make their own food choices, and elementary schools feed kids three or four times a day. At the elementary level, nature education is also about kids testing themselves against the elements and each other, about keeping the powers of imagination alive, and about creating mixed age – gender dramas, that run over a course of time, in which relationship kinks are worked out.
For teenagers, environmental justice is an exploding field of study, as teenagers have the abstract thinking skills necessary to cope with the bad news they will inevitably uncover on the internet. Richard Louv writes extensively about the alienation done by well intentioned parents and teachers, who rush kids to action on the troubles of the world, before kids have even had a chance to fall in love with the world. Teenagers have the blessed nerve to do something meaningful about the injustice they see inflicted upon the world, and we might all be grateful and help armor those brave young warriors willing to do fearless battle with modern fire breathing dragons.
As adults, we might educate ourselves about the havoc we are wreaking upon our earth, but lectures about recycling and endangered animals are too theoretical for young children to absorb (Louv). We who work with preschool children are lucky, for as real as our work can get, nature education at the preschool level is all about magic, wonder, imagination and delight.