If you’re like most of the 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 down this ignorance (and fear) 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.
1. Knowledge is power! Take the time before you go to learn about your green neighbors. There are an amazing amount of resources out there- from Wikipedia, to books on local flora (check the library or Amazon), to meetup groups and outdoor schools with naturalist and wild foods walks.
2. Ask the right questions. With so much information out there it can seem overwhelming to boil it down. Here are some good questions to get you started in understanding a plants’ place in his ecosystem:
-Where does your plant like to live? (And why?)
-Who are his usual neighbors?
-Who likes to eat or use him?
-(How) does he defend himself?
-How does he change throughout the year? (Flowers, fruiting, growth, deciduous…?)
-How have we humans interacted with (and depended upon) him over the millennia? (medicinal uses, food prep, as building or clothing materials…)
-What are his key identifying characteristics?
3. 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/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.”
4. Respect plants’ boundaries (and protect yourself). Make sure your kids learn not to touch or taste without knowing “who” the plant is and what his temperament is. 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 take care of themselves.
5. 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 plants’ complex role in its natural neighborhood, and our relationship to it- helps your child begin to see themselves as a part of their natural world, not separate from their green neighbors.