Plants as Provocation

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By Laurie

“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).”
― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

A few years ago I read Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, and it has left an indelible impression on me. At the time my nephews were attending an outdoor Waldorf school here in Portland; nature immersion was something our family was constantly thinking about, experiencing, and parenting around. I am a lover of nature, plants, seasons and learning/ observing with children in the natural world. However, I have also been a “city person” throughout my adult life, living in several fast paced east coast cities before moving to PDX. I feel my own nature explorations, informed by my love of the world and my own childhood experiences, have slowly been emancipating me from busy city life, capitalism, consumerism, and a distancing from nature.

“Though we often see ourselves as separate from nature, humans are also part of that wildness.”
― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

When Heidi came to visit us recently she was sharing that a toddler’s way of exploring new learning is to take everything apart. This got me thinking about my elderly next door neighbor growing up who would pass along flowers and herbs from her window boxes and potted plants for me to use in my imaginary play: pot them, take them apart, explore the roots, make “soup”… the list goes on. Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods talks too about our “containment” of children and also of natural spaces- that “wild” nature is preserved in our culture, and children are rarely allowed to destroy, break apart, build, change, overhaul or explore their natural environments in the sense of 1) being in nature in the first place but also 2) having space to get messy themselves or to make a mess in nature. Touching, smelling, exploring those plants in my childhood gave me a direct connection to them which many years later lead me to a love of gardening, and after that an exploration into herbal healing.

I’ve been putting these connections together, myself, over the budding spring and started bringing bucketfuls of flowers into our play space as provocations in the afternoon. Often I’m creating beautiful spaces and art ideas with the flowers for our kiddos to discover as they come into the space after nap. I’ve been trying my hand at using natural materials to make art in the backyard. But following along the idea of giving permission to explore, I have also wondered what children will begin picking apart not just the art and provocations but the flowers themselves.

Some of the children have started this process. The grape hyacinths are very alluring for tearing apart into tiny bits! We wonder- what can I eat? What isn’t edible? What can we use to make birthday cakes, candles, cupcakes? Who do I want to give a flower to? What colors do we see? What is a flower and what is a leaf? Which flowers smell good? Which ones are sticky? Which ones are soft? We have used flowers as ingredients, money, babies, and tiny animals.

“children in the “green” day care, who played outside every day, regardless of weather, had better motor coordination and more ability to concentrate.”
― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

For some nature-based inspiration, check out the website Land Art for Kids! There are some beautiful ways of using natural materials to make (impermanent) art there, and your art explorations with your child may, again, open a world of appreciation for the wild creature that they are, and the amazing world in which we live!

“Prize the natural spaces and shorelines most of all, because once they’re gone, with rare exceptions they’re gone forever. In our bones we need the natural curves of hills, the scent of chapparal, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wildness. We require these patches of nature for our mental health and our spiritual resilience.”
― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

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