According to Mason, children have a high capacity for observation and a natural propensity for details. She told the story of the father and son who, immediately after passing a store window, would take out a pad of paper and pencil and write down all the things they remembered seeing in the window. The father could get up to about thirty and the young son could get up to forty. She seemed to believe that children have a natural ability for observation and details that can become lost over time.
As children grow and build life habits of careful, consistent, and intentional observation, they take in and appreciate fully what is around them. This enables them to carry the beauty of those moments to nourish them for a lifetime. Mason said in Home Education (p. 47), “The miserable thing about the childish recollections of most persons is that they are blurred, distorted, incomplete, no more pleasant to look upon than a fractured cup or a torn garment; and the reason is, not that the old scenes are forgotten, but that they were never fully seen.”
So when I set out to write this blog, I intended to deal with more of what Mason said about observation, but soon found myself reflecting on my own lack of careful, intentional observation skills, my incomplete recollections, and the missed opportunities to have appreciated so much more in my childhood. I started pondering my growing up on a farm and found myself lamenting that, even though we were constantly out in nature, how many opportunities I let slip past me. If only I had understood what Mason so adequately teaches us about learning to observe and to “fully see” what is around us. Then pondering my own experience jumpstarted my thinking about the kinds of opportunities many children in today’s digital world have to observe and appreciate the natural world. So this blog grew to reflections about observation, farm life and today’s child in the world of technology.
I grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina where we grew and canned our vegetables, raised and ate our own chickens, put up tobacco, and the list could go on. LIfe was hard on the farm and although I don’t remember day dreaming about leaving the farm, I had no great love for it. There was frequent drudgery and much hard work, and the outdoor farm life does not automatically produce keen powers of observation and appreciation of the natural world. I think I rather fit Mason’s description above, because although some scenes I remember well, others that still could be my possession are regrettably lost to me because I did not exercise the level of observation and attention that Mason encourages.
Even if I did not understand and treasure what a gift my outdoor life was, I nonetheless learned much that still nourishes me, just by my being IN nature so much. I will share some of those with you.
1. I remember walking out to the clothes line where we hung our clothes to dry and being stung by bees about four different times before it occurred to me to put on my shoes. I loved the cool feel of clover and grasses under my feet.
2. One of my fondest memories is walking through the woods to the creek to play in the water and feeling the cool shade, the cool sand, and listening to the birds, although I could not identify any of the bird calls.
3. I watched the crops grow year after year and understood how we measured time, not abstractly on a clock, but organically by the seasons, or the rotation of the crops or the months of blooming: daffodils in February, the crêpe myrtles in July, the pumpkins ready in September.
4. I watched and participated in the planting, growing and harvesting of crops that helped to create a rhythm of living and that provided food for the table and money to buy clothes.
5. I experienced the joy of planting seeds, watching them sprout, grow and present to us their beautiful blooms.
6. I know the hard work of keeping wiregrass out of a flower bed and a vegetable garden. I know how deep in the ground it can grow and yet, pop its head out just when you think you have conquered it.
7. I know the taste of new potatoes, how they smell in the ground, and how incredibly dirty you get from crawling along the row while digging them, and having so much dirt under your finger nails but really not caring.
8. I also know the pleasure of staking tomatoes and harvesting them, and though as a kid I did not like to eat them myself, I enjoyed watching my mother and sister eating their juicy tomato sandwiches.
9. I remember the time after my dad died that my mother bought a calf to raise to slaughter for us to eat. When we kids all became too attached to the calf, my mother realizing this attachment could spell problems in the future, got permission from a neighbor to pasture the calf on his farm which was far enough down the road that we would forget about it.
10. I remember playing hide-and-seek, hiding behind tobacco or straw in the packhouse and seeing the mules below. It was really fun playing hide and seek. There were so many barns, bushes, farm equipment–all wonderful places to hide.
11. I remember walking through the cow pasture and being struck by the piles of cow dung.
12. I can still see in my mind’s eye the old log smokehouse where country ham was preserved. And, the corn barn was the place where piles of corn were stored and we used to slide down the big piles of corn like sliding on a sled down a hill of snow.
13. I remember as a child watching the bushes bud out every spring and watching the new biddies with the mother hen clucking and clucking, warning us to stay away from her babies. (Biddies is a good old southern farm word; you might need to look that one up.)
As I was pondering the things I learned inadvertently just from growing up on a farm, it occurred to me that so many of our children today, whether they are poor, middle class, wealthy–it really doesn’t matter, have little to no opportunity to be outdoors, much less to develop their powers of observation of the natural world. As I said, I didn’t learn to increase my powers of observation, even growing up on a farm, but I did still gain from the unstructured experiences of just being outside, breathing the country air, running in the dirt, seeing and feeling and hearing the seasons change. I wondered how would I differ from a child who had never had the advantage of living on a farm. I was outside; I was IN nature but it seems so many children today spend much of their lives INSIDE: inside their schools, with instructional days packed even tighter to ensure high test scores; inside apartment buildings where there are not enough safe outdoor play areas or nearby parks; inside malls shopping for the latest item promoted on TV; and inside their homes in front of electronic screens.
As I pondered the question, “Where are most children today naturally and organically involved in the natural world?” I thought of all the things children are not doing when they are in front of their electronic screens. They are not running with friends in the chilly autumn air, crunching the leaves of the maple tree that fall earlier than those of the pin oak. They are not poking around with sticks in the mud, figuring out how to build a dam for the mud puddle. They are not preparing the flowerpots for summer herbs or investigating places of maximum sun. They are not laying on their backs looking up at the clouds pointing to the ones that look like a ship or a cat. It seems to me that children today, especially those outside of a Mason education, have such few opportunities to experience nature that my life on the farm gave me, let alone to develop those observation skills to “fully see.”
But children today have a double whammie: not only is there less time outside in nature, but electronic screen experiences readily substitute for real life experiences in the natural world. A breathtakingly beautiful screen saver of a mountain or ocean scene awaits us when we turn on the computer. We are thrilled to see our favorite reality TV people trudge through the forest, or jungle on their latest wilderness survival. We can even watch educational lessons on our screens about the life cycles of the bark borer beetle or the woodpecker, but never experience the smell and feel of the silver maple, never poke our fingers over the holes in the bark, or never feel its rough textures.
I still have a long way to go in learning to be more observant and learning to pay attention to details, but I suppose I learned a lot by just being in nature. Let us think about how we can care for the children in our families, in our communities, in our cities and in our nation by promoting opportunities for all children to have access to nature.
© 2013 by Carroll Smith