The Child And Nature
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THERE is a close connection between children and things in Nature, so close that they see and hear and imagine more than those who have grown out of childhood. The beauty and wonder of the world are all fresh to them, and every-thing they see is a marvel. Their quaint sayings are a perpetual delight to grown people, who can only wonder at their poetic interpretations of ordinary things. A little child watching the lightning exclaimed, "Oh, how the clouds open and shut their eyes!" A tiny little girl stepping softly over the morning lawn said, as she brushed the dewdrops, "See, the grass has been crying!" And so with everything from a silvery cobweb to a mountain top in the clouds, they see the mystery.
It is only of late years that we are learning to cultivate this sense of nearness to Nature, and in the last decade books and essays have been written by our most serious men on themes which would have amazed our forebears. It is by no means a trivial thing to watch the ants or the bees, or see how the leaves are fastened to the twigs on the trees, or to observe the feeding of baby birds. We know to-day that all these are more important than some things which seem greater.
The Child's Interest in Nature.-In the country it is a simple matter to train a child's powers of observation and teach him to take an interest in such things. From the time when he begins to understand words he will love to watch the cows and the chickens, and as soon as he can creep he will make his way to the flower-beds and snatch at the blossoms. And yet these things are only superficial, and as soon as he becomes better acquainted with them he may lose interest unless from them, step by step, he is led to others.
A good way to begin with a growing child is to show him how the birds build their nests, and where. In the early spring, before the leaves have well grown, he will spy out the little new homes and see them grow, and then as the mother-bird lays her eggs and the little ones hatch, he will watch still, with keenest interest, till after they have learned to use their wings, and have gone to other places. He will see their ingenuity in building their nests, their infinite patience in raising and feeding their abnormally hungry young, and he will try and be patient too, shamed, if only a little, by them; he will learn to be thoughtful, as he is careful not to frighten the mother-bird as she broods, and kind, as he helps them find food, or sets out a drinking-pan for them near by. Nothing is more valuable to a child than lessons such as these, and he is always ready to learn them if only the ideas are suggested to him and he is encouraged to notice.
Use of Books and Museums.-It is so, too, with learning about other things. There are simple books about bees which are most interesting, and others about ants which tell most wonderful things of their intelligence; there are books about chickens and other farm animals which waken an interest in their funny little ways; there are all sorts of books about flowers and trees and mosses and ferns. Whenever a child shows the slightest interest in any one thing it is always best to stimulate it by getting one or more of such books. In later life such training will be invaluable.
In a city it is not always so easy to help a child to this love of Nature, but it should be done, in spite of that. Every child loves to see things grow, and will take good care of a plant which begins in a seed and ends in a flower, watering it faithfully and delighting in it as it develops; and certainly a plant or two any child may have. Then there are the parks; here are squirrels to be fed and tamed, and caged animals to be looked at, and little insects and ants run all over the grass. "How I do love a bug!" sighed a little city girl as a pretty speckled ladybug rested a moment on her arm. How all children love bugs, and everything alive, if only their attention is called to them and their real beauty and charm pointed out.
Pet Animals Useful.-Every child should have some live pets to feed and love, chickens, or rabbits, or white rats or mice, or pigeons, or anything which does not have to be kept shut up unwillingly. It is really better for a child to have no pets than those which are miserable behind bars, for keeping them there means unkindness. A boy has no right to a caged squirrel, but a white rat, which will doze in his pocket all day and go to bed happily in a box at night, is another matter. Rabbits, too, or guinea-pigs, do not seem to mind prisons, and they make excellent pets. A child will often find his own pets, and toads, even snakes, lizards, and such things, may be tamed and dearly loved by some child.
A dog is one of the things that seem to belong to a boy by birthright. A fox-terrier, or other small, loving little fellow really adds infinitely to a boy's enjoyment, and if he is responsible for its care, it teaches him kindness. It is, indeed, really essential in training children by giving them pets, that they should at least in part take care of them. It should be a point of honor with a child that he feeds them, gives them water, cleans their cages if they are kept in those, and makes them comfortable. If he is allowed to shirk this duty, half the value of the pet morally is lost. One lesson of neglect, and consequent suffering to the loved little friend, is something to be remembered all one's life with pain, but it is one worth learning, after all. To be careful and conscientious in feeding a pet means a great deal to a care-less boy or girl.
Enjoyment of Nature.-As we grow older we realize that as we love Nature or are indifferent to it, so our joy in life is in-creased or diminished. It means more and more to us to see the beautiful things about us, if only we are trained to notice them and love them in childhood. Too many men and women are blind to the colors of sunsets or mountains or sea, and deaf to bird songs, and indifferent to flowers; and life seems sadder by far as age creeps on than it does to those who feel that Nature is a dear, close friend to them. The father or mother who constantly points out to a child these lovely things and tells the small, intimate facts about them, and creates an interest in them, is giving a clue to what later on will mean a great blessing.