by Michael J. Caduto ©2021
It seems to me that we are living in a time of prophecy, a time of definitions and decisions. We are the generation with the responsibilities and the option to choose the Path of Life for the future of our children, or, the life and path which defies the Laws of Regeneration. —Chief Oren Lyons, Onondaga
How do we bring stewardship down to earth for children? How can we weave care for Earth into the warp and weft of a child’s inner life? Every child lives a unique story that unfolds within the context of family and the greater narratives of culture. Help a child to proactively create the story of a life that relates in a healthy way with the natural world and the lives of other people—and you offer that child the gift of a lifetime. Research shows that children who develop a strong relationship with their surroundings and a keen sense for how their actions affect the world around them, will tend toward living in balance with the natural world and advocating for stewardship.
During four decades of sharing the stories of indigenous peoples, I have become acquainted with recurring themes that are essential for living in balance. While the natural and cultural references in each story vary, the message is universal: health and healthy relationships are equated with reciprocity and generosity of spirit. This common truth appears over and over again in oral tradition. As co-director of the Quebec-Labrador Foundation’s decade-long Stories for Environmental Stewardship Program, I coordinated a network of professionals in environmental education and conservation as they gathered stories from diverse traditions in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. The published book—The Garden of Wisdom: Earth Tales from the Middle East—reveals that even in conflict-plagued regions like the Middle East traditional stories share similar values relating to family, culture and environment.
And yet individuals from any particular culture tend to learn in distinct ways, using the various kinds of human intelligence in unique patterns and combinations. For example, among Native North Americans and many other indigenous cultures, traditional education often takes the form of initiation rites and direct observation of elders, who hold and pass on important knowledge and wisdom. Indigenous learning emphasizes certain forms of intelligence, such as spatial, bodily, interpersonal, linguistic and musical.
Traditional approaches to children, health and the environment also encompass the human spirit as well as the physical realm. Children possess an inherent belief in the spiritual aspects and connections found among the living and nonliving parts of our Earth. For example, a common belief among Native North Americans is that human beings are identified with a particular place that defines us, provides for us and is an inseparable part of who we are. Among the Alnôbak (Abenaki) of Northern New England, the life force embodies emotion, energy and health. The wellness of a person’s spirit depends on state of mind and strength of relationship with Earth and Sky. All life is connected by the healing water, nebi, that flows through our veins—replenished and renewed by the land.
What can we do, in these times, to create social, cultural and educational experiences that help children to live in balance with the natural world? How do we help youth to understand that their own health is interwoven with nature, and to develop a nurturing relationship with plants and animals, soil, water and sky?
Today’s place-based education movement uses immersive approaches to teach children about local landscapes, cultures and social groups. The Upper Valley Teaching Place Collaborative (uvtpc.org) strives to connect youth to local environments and traditions through direct, hands-on community experiences that dovetail with learning through conventional subjects such as science, math, social studies, language and the arts.
In diverse societies, there is no one-size-fits-all. But we can help children to see their own lives as stories that are unfolding each day, and to realize that they are actively creating their stories—and determining the directions their lives will take—by the choices they make and actions they take. We can actively encourage an environmental ethic in children by exposing them to the inspiring life stories of such role models as Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Jane Goodall, Greta Thunberg and the many young eco-heroes who are recognized each year for their deeds on behalf of Earth (www.actionfornature.org). We can recognize, support and encourage local youths who are working to build community and save the planet, such as Change the World Kids and Earth Beat.
We can teach children how to grow a healthy body, mind and spirit and guide them along the path toward living in balance with the world around them. And we can instill in youth the self-confidence to act and believe in the possibility of changing the world for the better—empowering them to stand up for the things they love.
Nurturing a patch of milkweed with children and watching together as monarch caterpillars transform into butterflies teaches a sense of wonder and stewardship—all while helping to save a species that has recently qualified for the endangered species list. Photo Credit: Michael J. Caduto