by Upper School teacher Tina Morris
In late fall, before winter chose to scour our landscape with wind, snow and ice, I made a startling discovery. While driving down a local residential street, I counted six landscaping trucks, all from different companies, parked in front of six houses standing side by side. Each lawn was immaculate, every autumn leaf eliminated without a trace. The flower beds lay bare, with no traces of stems, flowers or leaves. Nowhere was an inviting pile of leaves for children to jump in; nowhere were the brown stems of perennials to remind us of their previous vibrant colors, nowhere were the seeds of August blooms left to sustain the birds through winter’s harsh cold.
The word that came to mind as I stared down the street was “tidiness” and it made me wonder — and truth be told, shudder a little too – how this tidiness had become so important to us? Why do we expend so much effort to keep our houses and yards from reflecting what is real and natural? Was there a turning point when people decided we had to clean everything up and keep it that way at all times, in all seasons, even when Mother Nature had other intentions?
And then, of course, being a teacher, I began to wonder how this new trend of tidiness is affecting our children and their relationship with the outdoors. Not only are our lawns and gardens always tidy, but we have also encouraged our kids to follow suit. Coming in from playing in the backyard or neighborhood woods used to mean a simple, “Wash your hands for dinner,” but now this rarely happens. When children are allowed to play outdoors after school, it is often in structured and supervised play with uniforms and the protective gear of shin guards, helmets and gloves.
Their play is prescribed, with safety the paramount concern. They no longer pick up slimy creatures from ponds or streams, follow animals tracks through the woods to see where they will lead, or poke sticks into crevices or holes to see what mysterious critter might emerge. Are we curbing our children’s curiosity about the natural world with our need to ensure that they are never out of our sight? We often feel better having our children playing video games indoors than playing imaginary games outdoors.
Our need for tidiness and predictability has led us down a dangerous path to developing a generation who is fearful of getting their hands dirty (the dangers of Purell is yet another story!), fearful of exploring under rocks, fearful of mess. Our lawns, ever green and devoid of life, reflect the world we seek to control. But the truth is that we are out of control. Those video games are no longer the safe places we once believed in, our children’s uses of technology reach well beyond our purview, and their ability to function outside of their indoor world, especially after their lower school years, has reached its lowest ebb in history.
As we celebrate Earth Day (April 22) this week, we owe it to our students and families to reevaluate our connection to the earth and all it provides. We espouse conservation and promise to manage our resources more responsibly; we nod our heads in despair when someone mentions climate change or pollution; we mourn the loss of our elephants, tigers, and rhinos, our forests and wetlands and open spaces. In our hearts, we want to be good stewards of our natural world, but we have lost sight of our place in it.
Our children cannot be comfortable outside unless we encourage them to go outside. They can’t appreciate the wonders of exploring the woods and connecting with the wildlife and plants if we don’t’ give them a chance to do so. Allowing our backyards to become homes for nature’s birds, mammals and smaller animals, allowing brush piles to make habitat for rabbits, chipmunks, and other critters, allowing part of our lawn to become a garden or compost pile would go a long way to teaching our children that we are part of our ecosystem, and not just its controller.
When children can see themselves as part of their environment, they will want to protect it. On Earth Day this year, let’s “untidy” our yard a bit and recognize the importance of sharing the land with our fellow creatures.
The Pike School is an independent, coed, day school for Pre-K through ninth grade in Andover, Massachusetts. Visit pikeschool.org to learn more about Pike – and visit our blog for more thought leadership. To learn more about admission to The Pike School, visit our Admission page.