“A child cannot love what they do not know”

A picture of the ocean, with rocks in black and white

A few years ago, at a professional development conference, a speaker said those words in their opening dialogue. At first, I thought it obvious. How can anyone love that which they do not even know? The topic of the conference was technology exposure and overuse in the early years and, while it was interesting enough, it was not exactly inspiring. I had forgotten all about it to be honest until this past week when, standing at the edge of the ocean, braced against the tail end of winter winds, those words suddenly came flooding back into my brain as though the crashing waves themselves had brought them. This time however, they made perfect, synchronized sense.

I spend a lot of time among the teachers of nature. For work, of course, but also for myself and my own family. Hours upon countless hours walking and foraging the majestic woods of the Pacific Northwest, exploring the tide pools of remote beaches and deep in the caves of high mountains. I love the natural world, but I have come to understand that even with my deep gratitude for its gifts, I do not know it for what it inherently is. Instead, I know it for the way I experience it, the way I see it based on who I was the day I walked that forest or that beach. Yet, the beach rocks and salal were here long before us. The water that carved out the caves full of underground stalactites knew its path before I ever walked one of my own.

When I realize this, I can see that my knowledge of the natural world is not overly complex. Sure, my ears have tuned to hear the songs of birds on the wind and I am pretty good at catching squirrels in my peripheral vision to point them out to distracted students. I can recognize and use the medicinal plants at my feet and I am quick to spot the first spring buds on a huckleberry bush or notice the flash of a salamander trying to get under a rotted log before I see it. These are superficial things though, quantifiable. We all know love is none of those things.

I remind myself to be more attuned. To stop before entering the forest or walking the beach and ask for an invite. I think about the giant Cedars and Douglas Fir trees sheltering us as we trip over their roots. I will be more mindful of that. In fact, I will have to be a lot more mindful of a lot more things. After all, love is a selfless, reciprocal act.

How then, can the average child, with little exposure to the natural world ever really grow to love it and if they don’t, how will they be driven to protect it? More importantly, how will a child that does not know the earth intimately ever know themselves? If we cannot teach them to sit in stillness until they can hear their own heartbeat as clearly as the rushing river or, to lay on the soft sand of a summer beach, eyes closed and listen for the symphony of the sea, how can we nurture a bond that never should have been severed?

Not going to lie, it is a big, big task. It takes a lot of time, perseverance, patience, and practice. It requires that we, as parents and as educators, allow a suspension of disbelief we have spent a lifetime cultivating.

A child cannot love what they do not know. Let us show them together.

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