Recently I received an email asking a “quick question” and that was: “What education/books or rituals/exercises would you recommend for children to promote Earth-centered education and connection? I want to instill in my children a better appreciation and understanding of the natural world. Any advice or resources you could point me to would be greatly appreciated.”
While a quick question, it had a long answer, one I thought anyone with children in their lives—a son or daughter, a grandchild, a child of a friend or sibling—might value reading too. Ultimately, as I wrote it, I realized that to me this is a key question: essentially how do we acculturate our children to be responsible individuals able to understand and connect to the living planet they depend on and are part of (or in other words, to be Gaians). Keep in mind, this answer comes both from my studies of this (see, for example, EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet) but especially from raising my own son, who is eight. I certainly can’t say I’ve done this perfectly but I think I’ve gleaned some lessons over the years.
First and foremost, nothing is more important or valuable than connecting directly with the living planet, not going for hikes necessarily (where you’re moving from point A to point B—often at an adult pace rather than at a pace that sparks children’s curiosity), but just playing in the woods or wilderness. Easy to say, harder to do in this overstructured world (though the COVID pause may help).
Fortunately, there are great nature mentoring program in which teachers trained in “Ancestral” or Indigenous life skills teach children a love of nature and ways of engaging with the Earth (whether foraging, making fire, tracking, all couched in play). And if local programs aren’t available, just building a fort together, exploring a vernal pond, sitting and observing nature, foraging for different plants (even or especially if you’re learning this together), can all be fun. When living in DC, Ayhan and I (he was 4 at the time) learned to process acorn flour (and yes, he really helped—picking out bad acorns, shelling the acorns, making acorn muffins, etc.). These things come naturally to little ones—as they haven’t grown up and grown distant from nature like many of us have.
Gardening, or even volunteering on a farm can also be fun (and educational). Over the summer my son and I volunteered a couple hours a week at a local farm. Some days he liked it better than others (planting seedlings is fun, weeding not so much was his opinion—though I thought weeding was pretty meditative). A simple garden plot or even some planter boxes will do if no outdoor space is available. Essentially, as Rachel Carson notes in The Sense of Wonder, the goal is to instill a sense of wonder of nature first—one that will set your child on a lifelong path of connection with Gaia. That doesn’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of nature, but rather just “becoming receptive to what lies around you” and sharing this with your child.
Read, read, read
There are so many delightful books to share with kids that connect them to the natural world. But as with instilling a sense of wonder, instilling a love of reading first is essential. I did not start by reading kids’ stories that were eco-themed but miserable (like this stinker) but the whimsical and joyful stories of Dr. Seuss and others to simply entertain my son. But over time we integrated stories that taught important life and ecological lessons.
My favorite series so far has been The Birchbark House series. This is a story about an Ojibwe family that is similar in structure to the The Little House on the Prairie series. In fact, I’d encourage you to read them together—alternating books between the series, though as some have written, there is some pretty overt racism in The Little House series. Much of this is focused on the otherness of the “Indians” and while outrageous from today’s perspective, it does feel historically accurate (and is a good opportunity to discuss racism—as this is an issue we need to discuss with our children from an early age, especially when a sitting president is celebrating white supremacy). To read the ‘building’ of America while also reading the conquest of America (same story from different perspectives), that’s a pretty powerful combination (at least for me if not my son—and it’s important you enjoy the reading process too!). Plus, both series are really well-written, enjoyable, and good portals into how things used to be, and into key skills we’ve lost but could (and need to) reclaim.
Screentime: Limited but rich (like sweets)
As for video, there is so much that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. I’ve limited Ayhan’s screen time to less than an hour a day, and generally we watch 20 minutes of documentary and 20 minutes of something fun—either a cartoon or movie. I try to mix classics and modern stuff. For example, Ayhan loved the recent cartoon Octonauts a few years back. It’s adorable and does try to teach stewardship of the ocean. And any of the Miyazaki anime is wonderful, especially My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away and Ponyo (I’m saving Princess Mononoke until he’s a bit older). And he’s watched many older cartoons—especially in Russian (he’s bilingual), which have wonderfully communitarian messages, and sometimes environmental ones, like this wonderful bit from Cheburashka, now one of my favorite cartoons.
And there are hundreds of wonder-inducing eco-documentary series as well. Pretty much anything by David Attenborough, plus wild ones like Nature’s Weirdest Events and One Strange Rock (which, through the words of the astronauts, definitely feels Gaian). As well as more themed or semi-fictionalized ones like The Bear from 1988 and Beary Tales from 2013. And even more broadly, there are fun science shows like Bill Nye the Science Guy (which has stood the test of time!).
And if you like playing games, with little ones there’s the wonderful Wildcraft—in the style of Candyland but instead of candy-themed, you’re on a quest to collect huckleberries and along the way have to use wild plants to cure different ailments you get, like a bee sting or poison ivy (which subtly primes plant identification). And as kids get more sophisticated there are games like Photosynthesis, Wingspan. And eco-themed resource management games galore: from Industrial Waste to Catan: Oil Springs (of course I’m going to include that one!).
Make every day sacred
This question also prompted me to recognize that I don’t do enough to cultivate ritual attention/awareness of Gaia in my son. The nature programs he’s part of have gratitude circles, which help, but he’s asleep as I meditate outside in the morning, we don’t say grace at meals, or pray before bed, and then the day has wooshed by. But in our most recent Gaian Conversation, one participant noted that every day he starts his day by touching the Earth and reciting a short poem. This reminded me that a ritual doesn’t need to be long or complicated. It can just be ten seconds. And then a few nights ago I watched a Japanese film in which a woman turned sincerely to someone who had just cooked her dinner, bowed, and simply said “Thank you for the food.” At that moment I realized that a simple expression of gratitude—to the person who prepared and cooked it and to Gaia for providing it—is enough to make one mindful of one’s meal and its origins. So these past few days, before eating, I’ve started saying “Thank you for this meal” (often to my wife, though my son once, too, when he cooked French Toast) and “Thank you, Gaia, for this food.”
So while there’s a way to go in making every day sacred, we have, at least, been engaging more consciously with Earth’s annual journey around the sun, where solstices and equinoxes have become more intentionally celebrated: including doing a fast in spring, and maintaining a 24-hour period of silence for summer solstice. And our weekly group forest meditation is another ritual that is starting to develop.
Prepare the body, as well as the mind
While this isn’t outdoorsy, I highly encourage enrolling children in martial arts. It is good exercise; a deeply valuable skill; increases confidence and respect (for self and others); reinforces meditation, moving, and thinking in ways similar to what ancestral skills teach; and if you can find a dojo that teaches adults and children together, it’s a nice way to learn and develop together (and take a mental break while somebody else leads!). I can’t say my son loves martial arts but as I’ve told him, whether he likes it or not, this is an essential skill that he’ll need to continue to learn until he’s an adult.
One final note: I made a choice early on to expose my son fully to the world of hurt we’re living in, not hiding the changes coming or the suffering that is upon us (societal or ecological), leaning on the assumption that when you expose children early to reality, they don’t become afraid of it, but simply habituate to it, whether that’s the butchering animals, living in a world of perpetual growth and consumption (few kids—or adults—question that even if it is truly outrageous), or talking truthfully about the accelerating disasters. Plus, I think grief or even anxiety of these times is less dangerous than suddenly having to confront it without preparation. Navigating the timing and full extent of this information is perhaps one of the hardest child-rearing questions there is.
A lot to absorb perhaps (and much left unsaid, including the value of cultivating basic life skills like cooking) but hopefully useful. And I would love to hear how you’re preparing the children in your life—and what books, or media, or rituals or outdoor adventures that have inspired you. So please share those below!