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Luke Groce
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Location: Louisville, KY
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Hi Matt,

I'm recently aware of the work you do, and I'm intrigued. My wife and i are looking to educate our children in a way that lines up with our goals and values. This will probably look like homeschooling at some point.

We've got three kids: 3, 2, and 2. I'm trying to think of ways to start helping them see and think about our farm, and ecological function and patterns. But it's obviously hard with attention spans and cognitive development bring where it is. Do you have any suggestions about how to begin with a three and a half year old?
 
D. Logan
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Yeah, I'm not Matt, but have some input here. I found that with my own children a lot of success comes from finding ways to answer questions in a way that drives them to ask more questions. Never offering an absolute answer because then they stop examining.

What is that?
A robin.
Oh. (runs off chasing a butterfly)

I tend to answer a question with another question. Sure it annoys the crap out of adults, but children seem to thrive on it.

What is that?
What can you tell me about it that might help us find out?
Um, it's got a red belly and it's eating worms.... (you get the idea)

My experience is that they begin to examine everything and notice things you never realized you were missing. My daughter especially is endlessly observing the world around her and working out how everything fits with the things around it. Every time she asks some random question, I jump on the chance to explore it with her. Everything from digestion to dirt to how the wind blows. I hope that's helpful in addition to what Matt offers.
 
Nicole Alderman
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My son will be two in a few weeks, and I spent 6 years teaching preschool before I had him. Having said that, I don't think there's any "right" way to interact with a child to teach them about nature. Every child is different, just as every adult is different, and there are many wonderful ways to teach young kids. My husband and I can take our son on an identical walk, and my husband will end up pointing out tadpoles and where they like to live and what they like to eat and catching one for him. That’s not something I’d think of doing, nor would I be able to catch a tadpole, but I would likely end up staring at leaves with him and talking about fall and how the leaves fall from the tree and we’ll soon get to rake them up to use as mulch to help our plants grow. Both are valid and wonderful ways to teach a child.

I think the main things of importance when teaching young children is to:

(1) Let them help! Get them a little shovel and rake, let them plant seeds, give them their own mini foodforest to be excited about (their own fruit tree with their own favorite edibles around it, for example). Thank them for their help. They’ll mess up. My son was “helping” me make a hugel. He started out putting dirt on it but soon was having fun making the dirt roll down the hill. I mentioned that we wanted the dirt on the mound, but did not make him stop. He was learning about dirt’s properties, gravity, how larger rocks rolled down, and he was excited about it. For a three and a half year old, I’d still let them experiment for a while, and then show them again what I wanted him to do, and explain why.
(2) That leads me to number two: Talk to them about what you’re doing and why. If you’re making a hugel, explain why it’s important to have the dirt over the wood so the plants have places to grow. Even if they’re playing next to you while you work and talk, they may be listening while you talk, and will pick up knowledge that way. Explaining why and what you’re doing helps them to see why it’s important, and they’ll be more likely to want to help, and to learn!

(3) Share with them what you’re interested in. Kids pick up on our passions. My husband loves fish, and he lets that excitement show to my son. Because my son sees that excitement, he thinks fish are important and he wants to help and learn about them.

(4) Don’t force the knowledge or the helping—if they’re not interested you can encourage but if they still don’t want to help or learn, let them do what interested in. This is especially true when they are little. By the age of three, you can totally do a daily “circle time” (if you want to) in which you pick what you’re going to teach about and have coordinating activities and crafts. Because there’s a routine with that, you’ve given them a structure and you can “force” the knowledge and the activities then. But, when you’re out doing your gardening apart from that structured time, just encourage and be excited about it. That’s contagious!

(5) Teach them about what they’re interested in—always answer their questions as best you can. If they want to know about the clouds, teach them as much as you can at that time, and then do some research with them to teach them more, and do some activities to help understand further. You could even make that the focus of your “circle time.” You can also use their interests to get them involved in the garden. If they don’t normally like being there, but love their dumptruck, you can show them how dumptrucks help move rocks and dirt and have them use their dumptruck to move dirt and “dump” the plant in the hole. If they love the color pink, you show them various things in nature that are pink and talk about why they are pink and have them plant some pink foods (raspberries, strawberries, beets, etc.)

(6) Get multimedia about what you see in nature! If you planted an apple tree, read the books you have that have apple trees. Show them pictures of various apples in a google search, color a picture of an apple, make an apple print with paint, even watch short video on youtube about it (unless you have objections to screen time, which I totally understand).
A lot of this doesn’t really take much time, especially if you have your kids with you when you’re out in nature. You don’t have to necessarily make lesson plans, but instead form those “lesson plans” by the seasons and your child’s interests and what you’re doing in the garden. That makes the learning more natural, exciting, important and understandable to the child.

I hope some of those ideas help. There really is, I think, no right way to go about it! I love D. Logan’s idea of asking further questions of them when they ask about things. Another thing to do when they ask questions is to answer them and then point out further areas of knowledge to be learned. To use the robin example, you could say it’s a robin and then say, “You can tell it’s a robin by its red breast. Do you know why it has a red breast?......”

I look forward to hearing what Matt has to say!
 
Matt Powers
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Go outside and sit in the dirt & start playing with it. Explain the truth of it: all life starts and ends with the soil

Show them all the life around them & they will never stop looking
 
Matt Powers
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It's critical to live by example, speak your thoughts aloud as you think them (helps lead their brains along the path), & do things that surprise them ALL THE TIME.
 
Nicole Alderman
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Erica Wisner posted this in http://www.permies.com/t/50433//Favorite-Preschool-Aged-Books-Nature, but I think she does a fantastic job of talking about introducing a love and understanding of nature with preschool age children!

Erica Wisner wrote:I second the recommendation for "Blueberries for Sal" - a classic book that doesn't preach nature connection, just lives it. A great kids' story with sound-effects, based on an ordinary day foraging berries.
(Although a somewhat terrifying one for both of the mothers involved.)

The illustrations are realistic line art, beautiful book.
I remember particularly enjoying it as a kid, which speaks well too.

I think the Lorax, Hungry Caterpillar, etc. use "nature" as a cartoon category of objects and symbols. One is preachy, the other is cute and funny but has no particular accuracy (except the numbers come in order). I think it's fine to enjoy both, but I don't thing either does much for a pre-schooler's sense of connection to nature.

At this pre-school age, you're learning really basic stuff about nature.
Like, that things are alive. That they can be hurt, or die. That some are good to eat, some are not, and some are very bad to eat or to touch.
You are learning your body, including how to pee and avoid peeing yourself, eating on command instead of on demand, getting your shoes on the right feet, walking, running, picking things up, discovering friends and feelings and words.
Or just lying in someone's arms, or in a stroller, staring up at the light through the leaves if you're lucky.

One of the big goals in introducing a love of nature at this point is to encourage opportunities to fall in love. Gaze. Taste. Develop secret friendships.
If you introduce difficult moral issues about nature preservation, and the Original Sin of human despoilation of nature, it's kinda like teaching a pre-schooler all about sexual abuse before they know anything of love.
Basic lessons are necessary (if anyone talks or touches you in a way that makes you feel bad, tell a grown-up). But outside of that, we work to build trust, intimacy, and a strong sense of identity, rather than live in terror of the worst possible outcome. To teach a toddler to fear hugs instead of pedophiles can create lifelong difficulties in not just affection, but basic bodily and mental functions.

The corollary for nature might be: This is not the right age to preach about extinction or industrial pollution, especially to a kid who doesn't even have an allowance to spend and is powerless to make its own choices about whether to drive or bike, whether to buy leather or plastic, etc.
It's a very reasonable age to begin learning that things can die; I sometimes point out that I don't like to kill things unless I'm going to eat them, or they are going to eat me. So we try not to step on or squoosh anything that's just minding its own business.
If you get too deep into difficult, complex problems without a good solution, you can create nature aversion, where kids just feel anxious and guilty about everything whenever they venture off the beaten path outside, and end up playing little nature-based video games (or just indulging in urban hobbies) because it's more comfortable. This is the opposite of solid nature connection.

So as an educator: I look for books that
- instill love and fascination, with emotional relatability, beauty, and a little humor or drama
- that kids love to read (funny sounds, good word choices, surprises),
- that encourage kids and their families to spend time together honing those habits of observation and open-mindedness.

You're also learning basic human symbols and language, including numbers and starting to read words, to prepare for deeper studies in school or home-schooling.

For counting and observation, I'd suggest "Anno's Counting Book" which has no words - you just look at each page and look for new things in the picture, which usually come in sets of the number you're learning on that page. Goes through all the seasons, in a northern/New England sort of climate.
http://www.amazon.com/Annos-Counting-Book-ANNOS-COUNTING/dp/B001T3MTEW

One of the funniest and most realistic books about animals I encountered as a child was "Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm." It may be out of print, but worth grabbing if you can find it.
Instead of telling you what animals "say," it goes into real farm tips like "Cows LEAN. They lean down fences. They lean down trees...." There are goats and cats with distinct personalities, flocks of mean geese, etc.
It is a farmer's book about farm animals, while still being very animal-friendly and city-kid-friendly (they don't go into butchering or gore, but don't pretend animals live forever either).
http://www.amazon.com/Animal-Friends-Maple-Hill-Farm/dp/0689844999

I also loved the Laura Engalls Wilder books, including "Farmer Boy;" the stories are good enough to read chapter by chapter to younger kids, and the language is well designed for older kids to read for themselves. Lots of older farm technology is described, lots of tiny house styles, lots of North American climates and farming and pioneer work from New York to the Dakotas. The attitude toward animals (and Indians) is not always PC, but accurate and well-meaning for the era the books describe. (The main characters are generally not bigots, but they do encounter bigots among their neighbors, and they do have some scary encounters with a few strangers but things generally end well.)

Folk tales:
There are some wonderfully illustrated folk tale and fairy tale books, with detailed observations of nature, and with regional native art styles that are equally interesting to me.
I think folk tales are a huge cultural resource, conveying allegorically and through their patterns a deep sense of how cultures work, values and humor, the wide range of human motivations and personalities. I like the older ones that don't shrink from bad things happening to good people, but that usually end with worse things happening to the bad ones. And while I'm sometimes puzzled by them, I love reading tales from other cultures where the moral lessons are not always the ones I'd expect.

I would suggest looking for two things in particular for suitable nature-connection stories for raising particular children:
1) Folk and historic adventure tales from your own ancestors, that fit with your family's culture and values, and
2) Folk tales from the ancestral peoples who lived in your region, neighboring regions, and in similar climates worldwide.

For my inland Northwest climate, for example, my attention would perk up to see the Okanogan-Colville tribes mentioned in any collection of folk tales, or more broadly the Northwest tribes both inland and coastal.
Comparing my climate to others worldwide, I would be delighted to find folk tales from inland climates like Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Poland and Russia, where adventures might feel exotic yet teach lessons relevant to our long-term sustainability here. (Snow, cold, drought, navigating forests, shrub-steppe, and rocky terrain, issues between valley farmers and hill people).

And I will maintain ties with American pioneer stories, Canadian legends, English and Scottish and Irish and French and German and Dutch fairy tales, that speak to my family's path through the world and the lessons that have helped us survive and become who we are.

Finally:
One of the most fun nature books for kids can be made by and with the kids.
Get some brown paper or whatever. (Ordinary white office paper is fine, but plain newsprint or brown paper works great and may be cheaper and more compostable in quantity. You can also use the recycled backs of paper or cardstock printed only on one side.)
Get something for a cover - I like felt with some fancy writing on it in puff-paint or stitching, but a couple layers of brown paper does just fine. Staple or stitch the pages together with the cover on. Write "My Nature Journal" or "Book of the Flower Hours" or "Clues from the Yard" or something like that. Each child's name can go on the cover too, if the covers are identical, or inside.
Get some shipping tape or clear Con-Tac paper if you can tolerate the plasticity, and want this to go quickly. If you have the patience, you can use very thin tissue paper, parchment, or wax paper, with wheat paste or white/bone glue, or fabric netting, but you will have to help more with the process. (Also, if you want to re-use the flowers for crafts, go with the tissue or wax-paper approach rather than tape, to better preserve the flowers; and target plentiful flowers where you can pick a lot extra, as they will become delicate and hard to handle.)

Go out and collect leaves, ferns, flowers. Press them onto the page and flatten them. Use the tape to completely cover them and hold them flat against the page.
Use just one side of each page, so the plant juices can dry out through the un-taped paper at the back.
On returning from the walk, press the whole book while the plan samples dry: put it on a flat shelf with a big dictionary on top, or slide it into a full bookshelf and then jam one more book in somewhere else.

Make a collection when you go to see new places, or in different seasons. Make spore prints from mushrooms, by letting the mushroom rest gills-down on the page overnight. (Color half the page black first for a better sense of what color the spores are; it's not just pretty, it helps with mushroom ID later on). Practice picking things carefully; removing the flower or leaf does little harm if carefully pinched or cut, but some plants are very sensitive to having their stems or roots pulled. A tiny leaf tip or tuft of moss can be more beautiful.

You can use these specimen journals to help find botanical ID's for plants, looking up their traits, or you can add little pictures of what you saw near them (bees, animals, waterfalls), or you can put in fairies and other fantasy elements and make it into a story book. You can also try making better and better-preserved beautiful examples, and turn them into nature-based gift cards for special occasions, or decorate cakes with the edible ones, etc. You can make leaf-rubbings on the underside (rib side) of any stout leaves in the book, or draw in other observations like landscapes, animal tracks, etc. and use them as a background for specimens collected nearby.

Mmmmm outdoor pre-school.

Another fun element that can be used in making nature-based books: Making paint by grinding things up and mixing them with glue or paste. The grinding-things-up process seems to be absolutely fascinating to many kids this age.
We used red bricks, charcoal, white clay, but you could also do turmeric, spinach leaves, beets, anything with strong color that stains badly. Plum-colored petunias and some other flowers and fruits (Burgundy Madness or similar shades for the petunias) make color-changing inks that will be bluish on alkaline-bleached paper, red on acid-process, and can change color if you paint them with lemon juice or squirt with clear ammonia (window cleaner).
I might suggest painting the cover, which could then be tape-laminated or shellacked with more glue, since these paints can be a little too coarse and messy for detailed drawing.

If you happen to have a Trackers, Montessori, or Waldorf preschool near you that does outdoor pre-school play, it's worth stopping by just to watch. A really good educator in this sphere can do amazing things with kids, including making games out of just about anything. I tended to be pretty high-energy when I did it, but I've also loved watching the calmer, soothing approach, particularly Waldorf with their songs and rituals that put the kids in a comfortable zone for relaxed, focused attention. The ritual of the bedtime story is a classic example of this kind of excellent patterning, the kids can pick the story but the pattern remains constant, and helps soothe busy bodies and minds into restful sleep.

-Erica
 
Matt Powers
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I've been trying to encourage Erica & Ernie to create materials for kids - they are both superbly adept and experienced at working with kids though you wouldn't know it from their online presence (usually - this post is revealing). Here's hoping for a book or series from them in the future!
 
Julie Walter
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We have three small ones too (5, 3, and 1) and are always thinking about ways to integrate them into what we're doing. The best learning is experiential. That having been said, we also ask A LOT of questions. Much of the permaculture approach to systems thinking is rooted in creative lateral solutions to problems. Many people underestimate children's capacity...we try to engage our children in the problem solving discussions we're having. They have great ideas, many of which lead to real solutions since their minds haven't been polluted with the overculture's ideas of what is 'normal'. I agree that hearing our throught processes also help to influence future problem solving.
 
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