As a parent, I can only give my daughter, Catherine, the tools and experiences to influence her choices. From an early age, we made efforts to foster an appreciation with our environment. At the age of three, she spent a cold March afternoon in the front yard with a small sticks, two spruce cones, some of last season’s flowers and a couple of iphone sized pieces of flagstone. Only a lead in question was asked, “What are you doing, Catherine?” and opened the imaginative door to a world of unprompted and unplugged engagement with nature. Her reply, “It’s for the fairies.” It was an auspicious beginning of what would become a cherished component of out third of an acre property. The Fairy Garden.
How can we entice kids to get outside? There are books written on the topic and public gardens that have tailored programs geared toward kids, if structure is what you seek. There is no shortage however, of home-based activities you can share with your children. Think back to when you were a kid: collect colorful fall leaves and press them in wax paper, plant a few easy to grow, fun to eat vegetables like sugar snap peas or cherry tomatoes, grow flowers in a window box or patio container, and at the most basic level, splash in a puddle or dig a hole.
Now that Catherine has grown and is in middle school, her science teacher offers the opportunity to join an afternoon school club titled The Life Systems Center. This outdoor garden space adjacent to the school has many features to engage young people. There is a pond and waterfall, a small green house, solar panels, a 400 gallon rain water storage vessel and weather station complete with anemometer and weather instruments. I have enthusiastically volunteered to work with the students by dividing perennials from home to bolster their planting beds this spring.
I try to foster teachable moments to offer exposure to nature in my daily work at the college. The arboretum affords the chance to work-study students to get their hands dirty. I willingly pass along my love of plants to whoever will listen! The Arboretum staff makes other efforts to involve the student population and the college community outdoors. For instance, the Arbor Day tree planting ceremony, Earth Day meadow planting, campus tours and lecture series are avenues to engage the denatured.
When the summer of 2014 came to an end and student workers went home for a few weeks, I found a note on my desk from Abby Fullem ’16 that read, “Thanks for being a great teacher and mentor. Can’t wait to see you in the fall.” Who wouldn’t feel a sense of pride and self-worth after reading that? Lifestyle and exposure to our natural environment might not fill the world with the next John Muir or director of an arboretum. We can only hope that the next generation will slowly disconnect from all the devices that we seen unable to part with. Then they will have had their minds put to ease and know it is okay to climb and tree, lie in the grass or play in a stream.