I heard it on a Levi’s jeans commercial when I was in high school and it has become my motto ever since—“Do not be afraid to touch the earth and let it touch you.” Following those words has been a guiding force in my life offering me respite from a busy world, bringing comfort and rejuvenation. It’s as if my body clock tells me it’s time to take a walk in the desert, to listen to the songs of the birds, to marvel at the beauty of a cactus flower— to let the earth touch me.
Several years ago I attended the Highlights Foundation workshop, Writing from Nature. We waded through Calkins Creek catching aquatic creatures, walked the woods with a forester, and photographed spring wildflowers peeking through the leaf litter. It rekindled childhood memories of making mud pies and watching clouds float by. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, claims that “children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and therefore, for learning and creativity.” Current research demonstrates that unstructured, outdoor play in nature is fundamental to childhood and that it is as important as food and sleep. But, look at children today. They are spending half as much time outdoors as children did twenty years ago. Louv feels that many are suffering from nature-deficit disorder.
I wondered what I could do to change this? How could I help children learn to love the natural world enough to protect it? In my career as a naturalist with the Cleveland Metroparks, I learned that the first step to conservation of our natural resources is awareness; followed by understanding, appreciation and ultimately, conservation. As an author, I want not only to inspire and inform young readers but to give teachers the tools to bring nature awareness into their daily routine. Writing books like Desert Digits allows me to contribute to education in a powerful way.
In my professional development workshops, I suggest simple activities. Is there space in the classroom for a Wonder Table displaying an assortment of shells, flowers, seeds or feathers with hand lenses for a close-up view? The Looking Closely book series by Frank Serafini and Look Once/Look Again by David M. Schwartz complement this investigation. Could the class adopt a tree on school property, photograph it every week and write diary entries in its voice? Is there an opportunity to watch clouds drift by changing shapes and igniting the imagination?
As literacy lovers, we all know the power of a picture book. Exploration of the natural world can begin in the classroom with lushly illustrated books and good read-alouds. Can a child learn empathy from a book? The Just for a Day series by Joanne Ryder allows the reader to become a chipmunk, Canada goose, or even a humpback whale experiencing their life for a day. Author Jim Arnosky suggests that after reading his book Arnosky’s Ark, children select an animal to put in the classroom ark and explain why it needs to be cared for. When I asked my adult daughter why she chose to specialize in environmental law, she immediately responded, “Because of The Great Kapok Tree.” Reading Lynn Cherry’s book as a child moved her to action as an adult.
I challenge you to be moved into action, to share nature books and activities with the children in your life and to let the earth touch you.
Barbara Gowan lives in the Sonoran desert and is the author of G is for Grand Canyon, Desert Digits and D is for Desert – a World Desert Alphabet recognized as an Outstanding Science Trade Book. As a teaching artist with the Arizona Commission of the Arts, Barb is known for her outstanding professional development workshops for educators. Look on her website for more nature activities and a Sharing Nature through Picture Books bibliography: www.barbaragowan.com.