Being a teacher, I have many opportunities to ask my students about their lives. In particular, I like to know how they spend their free time and what they eat. The answers they give often make me pause and reflect on my own childhood and on how much the world has changed. I am still young and my childhood was but a few brief decades ago, and yet it seems as if we could be talking about centuries ago, given how radically the world has been transformed in the past 20 years.
Another issue which all educators should think about is this: what do students need in order to excel in school and in life? What prerequisites are required? Surely, going to a private school and then on to a private or prestigious university is not enough. The world is turning out far too many company men (and women), young people with a lack of creativity, critical thinking skills and life-force.
I grew up in the suburbs. At the time I was born in 1966, my family was close to the outer edge of the Washington DC suburbs in Maryland. Beyond our small neighborhood were fields where cows and horses grazed in pastures and pockets of forests remained where one could freely roam without fear.
Our street was a microcosm of America, with families of Italian, German, Greek, and Scotch-Irish origin. All the neighbors knew one another. My parents had numerous parties where they invited everyone on the street to our house for food and drinks. In order to get to my friends’ houses, I had to cut through the yards of three of my neighbors. These days, that would be known as ‘trespassing.’ Doors were often left unlocked. When I arrived at my friend’s house, I simply walked in without knocking (‘breaking and entering’, I think they call it).
Our wealthy next-door neighbors had a pool and tennis court which my siblings and I were free to use any time. We kept a section of fence open between our yards which acted as an implicit acknowledgement of openness and an invitation for mingling. Now, houses in that area are surrounded by large brick fences and other forms of security which naturally discourage spontaneous encounters.
Our neighbors directly across the road, the Adams family, stood out to me as exemplars of kindness. They had a pond in their yard, not too large, but big enough for kids to swim in summertime and ice skate in the wintertime. What a blessing to have that pond available to the neighborhood kids! Usually in December, when temperatures got cold enough for the ice to freeze the pond, old Mr. Adams would trudge out to the pond with his measure and screw to drill into the ice and make sure it was exactly thick enough for safe ice-skating. Word would quickly spread and my friends and I would be there in no time. Not only did the Adams provide the pond, but they also had a collection of ice skates which they loaned out to everyone. Finally, after we returned inside, exhausted, to take off our skates, they would provide us with sweetened crushed ice.
Our house had a well which we used for all of our water needs. When we were thirsty, we simply turned on the faucet – or the garden hose- and filled our glasses. It was clean and delicious and just as importantly, FREE OF FLUORIDE and other toxic chemicals routinely added to municipal water supplies.
My mother did not have a job outside the home and she cooked breakfast and dinner for my siblings and I every day of the week. Without having any background in nutrition studies, she used her common sense to guide menu planning and the meals were all well-balanced, even though I often vociferously rejected the vegetables on my plate, most especially the peas and carrots. There was fresh fruit on the table every morning, and a fruit drawer in the refrigerator which was always well-stocked. A salad was provided with dinner. The importance of having home cooked food prepared with love on a child’s development cannot be overstated, I believe. Going out to eat at a restaurant was a rare event, and something to be appreciated. Fast food was extremely rare. We went to McDonald’s once or twice a year and my body and mind were spared the toxic onslaught of what those places call ‘food.’
The food preparation is the first part of the equation and the second part is the eating and sharing it. My parents, again using their innate wisdom and common sense, knew that eating dinner as a family around the table was an important, even sacred, act and that such things as television watching violated that act. The conversations were not always interesting, and sometimes were downright boring, but that didn’t excuse us from the obligation to sit and eat together.
At that time in the 1970s, television had made its way into every house in the country, and we had two televisions in ours. My parents understood that most of the programs were garbage and that watching it was not going to aid my brother’s and my intellectual development. They allowed us to view it, but with strict limitations. We typically watched no more than one hour a day. We knew better than to ask if we could have a television in our bedroom. My parents would have scoffed at such an idea as absurd. All the kids I know these days have one in their bedroom, along with a computer, x-box , and smart phone. How can a child concentrate or develop an interest in books with all that stimulation at their fingertips?
I developed an interest in reading and books when I was young. I don’t remember my parents ever badgering me about reading, or needing to give me much encouragement. If the books are available and lying about, if the setting is amenable to reading, i.e. comfortable chairs and couches, good reading light and a quiet atmosphere, then a kid with a curious mind will naturally take to it. My mother was a good model. She returned from the library each week with a stack of books under her arm. She left most of them where I could find them and I would often grab a couple to take to my room to read. Later in my life, I became a real library hound, spending hours lost in the stacks.
The kids in the neighborhood and I were outdoor kids to the max. We were outside 365 days a year. In the summertime, temperatures sometimes exceeded 100 degrees F. and in the winter, they often fell well below freezing. No matter. The heat was a good excuse to swim in the pond or pool and the snow and cold were a good excuse to build snowmen, snow tunnels and snowballs. Sledding down the local hills was popular. In the fall, raking up big piles of leaves and then climbing up on the fence to jump into them was always fun. Our summers in Vermont were spent wandering through the forests and collecting wild berries.
Tree-climbing is a pastime that is hardly any kids engage in anymore. This is unfortunate. Few activities give more benefit. It is great exercise and you don’t need to invest in any equipment. It builds stamina and arm and leg strength. It instills a sense of accomplishment in the climber when he is able to reach the top of the tree. It enables the climber to see life from a new perspective, gazing now over the rooftops. It subconsciously creates respect for nature as the tree becomes your ‘friend.’ You will learn the name of that tree species that you love to climb so much. It provides you with excellent cover for games of hide-and-seek and when you are fleeing your enemies (or your parents.) And you will never be embarrassed to tell your friends that you are a ‘tree-hugger.’
Bird, insect, and animal life were abundant. We collected frogs, worms, tadpoles, turtles, lightning bugs, moths, crickets, butterflies and more worms. Herds of deer came through our yard daily. Red foxes hurried through in the late evening. Rabbits had their families at the base of trees in our backyard. Bats visited in the evening. My mother is a naturalist. She always had a bird feeder set up in the back yard from which many birds got their sustenance in the winter months. She could identify the name of every bird that visited our home. (And if she couldn’t, she went to the library to borrow a bird identification book) My parents knew the name of every plant, flower, shrub, bush and tree in our yard. It was simply a given that you should be able to do this. Hence, it came as a shock to me years later when I asked people about the flora in their yard and they were unable to tell me the names. Needless to say, most city folk cannot tell you the name of a single tree.
When I was growing up, our street ended at the edge of a forest. It had not yet been gobbled up and devoured by developers. Though not a large forest, it was just big enough for a twelve-year-old to get lost in. We used to run around in that forest all the time, looking for treasures and caves. I remember one night getting separated from my friends around dusk and realizing with growing panic that I had lost my way. No familiar landmarks were to be seen and each passing minute would see the forest get darker and darker. Thoughts started appearing such as “What if i can’t find my way out before it becomes dark? What if I have to spend the night here? Does anybody know where I am? Will anyone come looking? Is there anything in this forest that can eat me?”
I eventually found my way out and raced home, albeit late for dinner. In later years, I often went hiking in other forests in other states, but that first experience of surviving ‘being lost’ and keeping my wits about me was a good lesson in wilderness appreciation.
By the time I was seven years old, I could identify ten constellations in the night sky. I could easily find Mercury, Venus and Jupiter and Mars. Again, this was not seen as ‘scientific’ or advanced knowledge, but simply as common sense stuff that everyone should know. I watched the sky every day and could name half a dozen cloud types. I knew what cumulus, stratus, cirrus, alto-cumulus, and cirro-stratus meant.
Years ago when I lived in Seattle, I was in my local park one night, at dusk, looking out over the city to the west. It was a clear beautiful night. Venus was shining brightly low on the horizon. A young couple in their late twenties stood next to me, and I said, “Wow, look at Venus, she’s so bright tonight!”
The young man looked at me quizzically, and replied, “Huh? Venus? You mean, like, the planet? You can see that?”
I didn’t know what to say. I felt such a deep sadness for these young people, and all young city people the world over who have no connection whatsoever with nature, who are so cut off from reality that they have lived three decades of life on Earth and nobody, NOBODY, has ever pointed out Venus to them. Sad, but true.
To summarize: Kids need home cooked food and pure water. They need to spend most of their childhood engaged in free play in nature, with space to roam and exercise. They need to develop an understanding and appreciation of nature and learn to name things, especially their local flora and fauna. They need loving and caring neighbors. And they need to develop their curiosity about the universe through books and ample time for reflection.