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Wonders of nature appeal to young kids

Published on: October 01, 2005

Three-year-old Nova Schoonover knows that a tree is not just a tree, and a flower is not just a flower -- they're maples and madronas, sunflowers and dahlias. Her mother, Leah Schoonover, has told her so during their many regular treks through Seattle's Central District, where they live.

For Schoonover and other parents teaching young kids about the environment, the quest adds up to more than protecting forests. "It means finding different ways to create a relationship with some aspect of the environment," Leah Schoonover says. It means indulging the child's wish to study, name and celebrate everything, from the broadest stretch of sky to the tiniest pebble. It means thinking about what grows and all that's consumed.

"It also means getting dirty," says Kurt Schlichting, who lives with his wife and two young daughters in Monroe. Exposure to the elements is everything, Schlichting says. "It helps them learn to adapt and not get too thrown by things that could potentially scare them." Like, say, dirt.

Though neighborhoods and back yards make great classrooms for nature study, many preschools now teach environmental awareness. For example, Prescolar Alice Francis in Seattle's Seward Park neighborhood emphasizes environmental stewardship as one aspect of its social change-based curriculum. The school relies on kids' natural wonder to teach gardening, waste management and charitable giving.

"We use a food scale to weigh their food waste and trash at the end of meals, and then we talk about creative ways to reduce this each day," explains School Director Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. Along with a giant worm bin, the children maintain two gardens and a rain barrel for collecting water. "Notions of lifecycles are really being practiced," Lipsky says.

Some parents may not see themselves gardening or collecting rain water anytime soon. For them, Lipsky encourages modeling conservation through cutting back food waste and packing lunches in re-useable containers. Small steps can help children see the value of taking responsibility for the environment, she says.

Along with the basics of lifecycles and conservation, tots can learn to identify plants and wildlife in just about any setting. Corrie Hayes, director of Roots and Wings, the preschool program at the Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, says learning about animal tracks and scats (waste) as well as plants gives children a broader awareness of what's around them and a deeper way of looking at the world, which transcends human borders.

"It's important that children realize that there's wildlife all around them," Hayes says. "If they know how to notice signs of wildlife, they see where coyotes have been in the suburbs, deer in parks, plants that they can eat and places where they can find protection from the rain."

At home on his 5-acre property, Schlichting creates similar awareness with his daughters by talking while tromping. "When we're in the woods, we try to be quiet so we can actually hear what's going on instead of just our own voices," Schlichting says. "I point things out and ask them, 'What do you see around you?'" With the help of a well-used field guide, his older daughter Niya learned to identify 100 birds by age 4.

Schoonover, who grew up in a logging town, says she prefers teaching about nature in an urban setting, where the connection between people and natural resources is clear. She stresses the importance of staying neutral about touchy topics, like deforestation: "We do our kids a disservice by walking around talking about trees as sacred. We live in houses made of wood, we use pencils and paper. I don't like to go down the road of 'Don't cut down trees.' Rather: 'How can we not cut down so many?'"

Schoonover's favorite environmental-ed lesson is one most people can agree on: "Everything is tied to everything, and we impact everything around us."

Natasha Petroff is a Puget Sound-based writer, marketing communications consultant, mother and stepmother.

For parents of preschoolers

  • Explore neighborhoods, parks and trails.
  • Get dirty: Dig in the dirt, check out the undersides of leaves and rocks.
  • Play games: role-play, bury and be buried. (For more ideas, check out Sharing Nature with Children by Joseph Cornell.)
  • Talk about the weather.
  • Explain vital resources in simple terms: where they come from and why they need to be conserved.
  • Encourage and model using what's needed, plus reusing and recycling.


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