Children and Nature

Childhood and Nature

Childhood and Nature


Jennie Lee Knight


Introduction by Joseph A Baust


Introduction: Teaching about and for the environment/nature has been a passion of mine for many years. In reflection it started from my father’s love of the out-of-doors and hunting and fishing, whenever time would allow. We lived in a row house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with very little green space. Even with that restriction, my mother often told us to go outside and play. We did this gladly, sometimes forgetting about lunchtime. We only remembered to come home when our father used his loud, sharp whistle to remind us it was time for dinner. But the days always evaporated when we played outside.


My mother wanted to find a summer camp for us to attend, but with little money for the extras, this was a tough proposition. She went to our elementary school, Fairhill on Somerset Street in Philadelphia. It was a blue collar K-6 school, with the oiled wooden floors that creaked when you walked on them. It was all concrete, with two immense oak trees left on the playground. My mother asked if there was a camp, outside of the city for me. They suggested an “overnight camp” for “underprivileged children” in the countryside in Downingtown, PA. It cost twenty-five dollars, a princely sum at that time, but it was well worth it because it took me from the hot, sticky, city. Camp was my respite; it was what a city kid like me would call a wilderness compared to the row house world I knew.


Being outside with Uncle Bill Belzer the Nature Counselor, and vast opportunities to hike, swim, and play outdoors was a dream. A creek hike with Uncle Bill was magical, because he let us explore. When we found something he always helped us observe and make our own inferences. It was any wonder that his sessions were filled with inner city children because we became explorers in a world for which we were unaccustomed. This became a normal part of my summers until I had been invited to become a counselor at this camp. It was this experience that directed me to teaching.


I spent many years teaching in suburban, urban, and inner city schools until someone suggested I might like to teach teachers. As time passed I was given the chance to direct a Center for Environmental Education and work with undergraduate and graduate students, teaching about and for the environment. What an opportunity for a person who came from a blue-collar home, who lived in a row house in urban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This was my chance to work with teachers-to-be and teachers in a setting like camp.


I have found environmental education is good home for me. The most important part was learning so much from teachers and teachers-to-be. They were curious, excited, and welcomed the opportunity to learn about the environment that connected what they taught or would teach with something that had meaning for them. What a nice match for me, working outdoors, learning outdoors, extending my early years into my adult years working with people eager to learn. To be sure, not all teachers were excited about bugs and worms and ticks. Yet even the most averse to being outdoors, over time, found their comfort zone. I learned to trust the common denominator of nature and the out-of-doors as I saw teachers growing personally and professionally. Meanwhile I had a twofer, being outdoors, and learning from teachers in nature.


Recently I was combing over my files and stumbled upon an essay written for one of my classes. It was so expressive and connected their experience with mine back to camp days. Yet, I did not know the author. There wasn’t a title page. If I was going to use this essay, I knew I had to find this person and ask for permission for its use, to give proper credit to the writer. I had a suspicion who may have written this and I inquired. Indeed, it was Jennie Lee Knight, an elementary teacher in Hanson, Kentucky.


Jennie is one of those persons when given a task would go headlong into it. Her gift of writing reminded me of the importance of nature in our lives, of connecting children and adults to nature, and how important it is to nurture connections to nature through first-hand experience. People like Jennie, their writing and how they embraced nature and environmental education, has sustained me over the years. Occasionally you stumble upon someone with the gifts she has as a writer and humorist and it confirms that my vocational choice was right for me. Jenny has been most gracious to give permission to use her essay that may connect to making meaning, and about the value of nature in each of our lives.


Childhood and Nature -  Jennie Lee Knight


The smell of freshly cut grass lingered in the air and the cricket's song could be heard above the bustle of the cars whizzing to their next destination. A mason jar, emptied of its contents, was transformed, as if by magic, into a dwelling suitable for the tiniest of creatures. The blaze of the sun had given way to the gentle glow of the moon, and my brother and I waited impatiently on the front porch for our cue. Time seemed to pass slowly until it caught our attention, from the periphery of our vision... a light. Both fast and faint, it disappeared as quickly as it had emerged; but we both knew it was time.  The race was on.


Those memories, nearly thirty years removed are still as vivid for me as if they had occurred yesterday. The favored nighttime ritual:  dinner, bath and fireflies remains paramount in the recollection of my 'days gone by'. I remember the excitement of finally catching one, scraping it off of my hand into its new home, and eagerly sharing my discovery with the closest set of eyes and ears. I also recall the sting of waking the next morning to the realization that my friend had died in the night, succumbing to the fall-out of my ignorance of holding him captive and separate from his environment. I cannot deny making glowing earrings and baubles or creating torches to light the path of our nocturnal adventures. Nor can I deny the connection I felt with myself and the earth during this time.  We both begged to be discovered.

What was it about these affairs, albeit trivial, that etched such a deep account in my mind, and perhaps my soul?  Academics would likely attribute it to some neurological function, and perhaps there is a whisper of truth in that theory. I, however, prefer to believe, that in that time and place I made a specific discovery about myself, my world and how we were intended to fit together. At the time, neither felt more or less important than the other and it occurred as naturally as the fireflies did in the evening.

It is my opinion that if we are to be truly aware or cognizant of our environment we must have first hand experience therein. It isn't practical or even pragmatic to expect seventh graders in Kentucky to understand, or truly care about the plight of the Delta smelt and the farmers in the San Joaquin valley in California. It is an important issue, relevant to our economic and ecologic time, but outwardly it has no bearing on their personal lives or subjective worlds.  They would enjoy far greater benefits from exploring the wooded area behind their school or the stream that runs in their neighborhood. From these experiences, quality educators can build on the concepts that have meaning in the lives of their students. Issues and questions will occur genuinely in the quest for knowledge, no prompt or prodding required.

Perhaps Wordsworth was right in his theory that "the world is too much with us".  We are surrounded by devices of  every kind, each one luring us  in with  its new  fangled applications and  appeal. We push them in our schools and pursue them in our lives.  We market three dimensional televisions to children using the inherent beauty of the natural world, yet deny them the opportunity to experience it first hand by removing outdoor and physical play from our curriculums.  We have "laid waste our powers" and sadly, “given our hearts away".

The great news is that there is no better time for change than today. As an environmental educator, I don't seek to fix all that is wrong in the world but rather strive to change the “world" of my students. If I can show them, in an up close and personal way, that there is life beyond the LCD screens of their I-Pods and Blackberries and that life has implicit value just because it exists, then nature has a remarkable way of handling the rest. It isn't my objective to create classrooms full of activists and extremists. I simply want to rekindle the natural curiosity about the world I believe is indispensable to our kind. And perhaps catch a few fireflies along the way.


(photo: by Joe Baust)