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With Eyes Sensitive to Green

Contributed by Ingela Jagne, Goteborg Botanical Garden, Carl Skottsbergs Gata 22, S-413 19 Goteborg, Sweden

People in big cities today are generally the third generation of town-dwellers and are often far removed from nature. Many of them do not know much about plant species, and this lack of knowledge makes people feel insecure. Many town-dwellers feel safer in the centre of the city on a Saturday night than they do in a forest on a Sunday morning.

What most people do know, in theory, is that plants are important to us in a physical way; green leaves produce oxygen and food, trees provide timber and fibers etc. Most people also agree that parks are important. A park is a place where you take children, it is a place you visit when you need to relax. But do people realise that plants make these places different from the rest of the town and that they affect their psychological health, especially in growing children?

Scientists have found that children are more harmonious, develop a better feeling for language and play better and for longer if they have a lot of green areas with plants in their environment. Most school yards in town schools all over the world are covered with asphalt or concrete. Even though children in cities have arificial, laid-out green areas to play on, they have a very long way to go to experience ‘wilderness’. Adults want to create safe playgrounds for children, open places covered with asphalt, sand or grass. The equipment is ready-made and it is not often that you can change it while you are playing. Wild areas, with natural trees to climb and bushes to hide in, are not so common, and are thought to be dangerous by adults.

Children's activities always involve a certain amount of wear and tear; thus there is always an element of ‘destruction’ in laid-out green areas which is not found in ‘wild’ wooded areas.

Children learn with all their senses. They need to create a relationship with nature, and build on experiences they acquire.

There is no doubt that botanical gardens play a great part in educating people, especially children and youngsters, about plants. It is a good thing if botanical gardens can give children some feeling for nature, but it is also important to make city planers aware of the importance of having wild areas close to residential areas, where children can develop their own relationships with nature. I think that the way to people’s intellect is through their emotions. If you can make them feel something for plants, they also start asking questions and will want to learn about them.

The aim of the workshop called ‘With eyes sensitive to green’ was to encourage participants to open their minds and to experience the environment in a different way, to make all the senses more awake. We started by laying down on the grass in the Garden and we travelled away in our dreams to the time we where about seven or eight years old. Then the participants went, in their dreams, to their favourite place, the best place they knew as a child. Maybe they went there for playing, or maybe for relaxing but this place was special. Sitting there, in their fantasy, memories of the sounds, the smells and the spirit of that special place passed through them and gave them good feelings . . .

Back to the reality of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in 1996; discussion in the group showed that 98% of the participants had been to places not prepared by adults but to places that are a little bit wild and untouched. It could be up in a tree, behind an outhouse or in the bushes. These places are not often used by grown-ups who saw them as ‘messy’, ‘not taken care of’, or ‘needed to be tidied up’. Maybe these kinds of places are the most important ones for children because, it is here, they can develop their own relationship with ‘wild’ plants and nature without disturbing adults. One thing is obvious, it is very common that adults, somewhere inside themselves, have a hidden place with this ‘wild’ character that they remember as very important in their childhood, despite the fact that it is often later forgotten. If you want to convince people about the importance of this kind of place, encourage them to close their eyes and thinking about their favourite childhood place. It usually helps and makes a lot of talk unnecessary.

After this dreaming we started to walk in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden with eyes a little more sensitive to green. We went into a shrubbery; here the participants had to follow a rope, one by one, behind a big bush and be alone for a while. It can be a big experience to a child, even frightening, to be alone with nature. If you have a place that is a little bit more ‘wild’ in your garden, you can try this. The rope is the security link to civilisation. After meeting the bushes we started hugging and talking to trees. They often have interesting stories to tell if you open your mind and listen. Then the group moved outside the Garden into a busy New York street. The participants noe had both sensitive eyes and ears, so that when they were asked to listen to the language of the place, the language spoken without words, they were able to experience the difference between the Garden and the street.

Back in to the Garden, we went into the calm and silent Japanese Garden and discussed the opposite of the different places we had visited and how different they made us feel and maybe also behave. One of the questions that came up was; can children grow up to be conscious of the environment if they do not have their own relationships with nature built up in their childhood? Many would say ‘No! – they need more green natural places to play in.’

   


Journal Articles

April 2006

Sharing Nature with Children II
The second volume of Cornell's classic book on activites for children to explore the natural world around them.
Last Child in the Woods
Richard Louv's book argues that children desperately need to be able to play in the woods - and that Western culture's sterile rejection of nature is harming them in body and soul.