If you’re similar to most of the Hill populace, many of your trips into nature are characterized by toiling up a dusty path through an unidentifiable and somehow vaguely unsettling corridor of green. Sadly, most domesticated humans have an appalling lack of understanding of their vegetal surroundings and may even feel threatened by their leafy neighbors. (“Is that thing poisonous?”) Even worse, we often pass this ignorance (and fear) down to our kids.
Want to end this environmental ignorance and help your little ones learn to relate to our photosynthesizing friends in an entirely new way? Well then, it’s time for you to get to know your wild, green neighbors.
A well-informed nature walk can be one of the best ways to help your kids (and yourself) get to know the residents of your natural neighborhood. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your trip.
• Knowledge is power: Take the time before you go to learn about your green neighbors. An amazing number of resources are available from Wikipedia to books on local flora (check the library or Amazon), to meet-up groups and outdoor schools with naturalist and wild-foods walks.
• Ask the right questions: With so much information out there, boiling it down can seem overwhelming. Here are some good questions to get you started in understanding a plant’s place in his ecosystem: Where does your plant like to live (and why)? Who are their usual neighbors? Who likes to eat or use them? How do they defend himself? How do they change throughout the year? (Flowers, fruiting, growth, deciduous?) How have we humans interacted with (and depended upon) them over the millennia? (Medicinal uses, food prep, as building or clothing materials?) What are their key identifying characteristics?
• People remember (and respect) people: When working with young kids, I’d recommend initially skipping the Latin names and instead focus on helping them to see the plants as separate people with different abilities, complex personalities (not all good or bad), and likes and dislikes.
Talking with my 4-year-old niece might sound a little like this: “Miss Blackberry can be really prickly. If you move too fast around her, she’ll scratch you with her thorns. She likes to live with her feet in the water and take deep drinks so that she can make extra-juicy berries.”
• Respect plants’ boundaries (and protect yourself): Make sure your kids learn not to touch or taste without knowing “who” the plant is and their temperament. Most plants have defenses to be aware of.
“Mr. Stinging Nettle’s hypodermic hairs sting invaders with painful, itchy toxins to keep animals and you from eating too much of his really nutritious leaves.”
Help your kids to understand that plant defenses are part of the natural environment. These plants are not “bad” for defending themselves, they’re just trying to protect themselves.
• Avoid black and white views: Describing a plant as all “good” or “bad” gets in the way of understanding the plant’s role in its neighborhood (ecosystem). These “difficult” plants often also have a bounty of benefits for you and for their green neighbors.
“Mr. Nettle can provide a whole bunch of nutrients. Collect his newest leaves carefully with gloves, and cook them long enough to deactivate his sting, and you will get a really yummy green.”
So get out there and explore. Understanding a plant’s complex role in its natural neighborhood and our relationship to it helps your child begin to see themself as a part of the natural world, not separate from our green neighbors.