"The sun illuminates only the eye of man, but
shines into the eye and the heart of the child."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Given a choice, young children will usually choose to be in a
natural environment. They want to be outdoors, in the fresh air
and sunlight, barefoot and naked, surrounded by grass, trees, and
flowers, hearing the birds and the wind, playing in water with
sticks and rocks. If you ask most grade school children what is
their favorite part of school, they say outdoor recess. When
children spend time outside where they can run, jump, climb,
swing, swim, and play, they eat better, sleep better and are
happier. We all know that children thrive in the outdoors. Yet we
often forget how much the environment can affect a child's mood
and behavior. When children spend too much time inside breathing
stale air, hearing the hum of all the lights, electrical
appliances, and the television, surrounded by synthetic fabrics,
playing with plastic toys, eating foods that contain artificial
coloring and preservatives, they get cranky and disagreeable.
Our environment affects us all and we all have different
sensitivities, but children do not have the filters that most
adults have acquired. Children absorb all the sights, sounds,
smells, textures and emotions around them. Environments that meet
adult needs or that adults can tolerate often feel very different
to children. The philosophy that "it's a cold, cruel world
out there and children may as well get used to it right now"
is completely counter-productive to raising children to be as
whole, healthy, and resilient as possible.
The author, educator, and one of my personal heroes, John Holt,
compared human beings to bonsai trees. If you take a tree seedling
and clip its roots and branches in a certain way and limit its
supply of water, air and sun you can produce a tiny, twisted tree.
A bonsai tree is a deformed miniature of the tall, straight tree
the seedling had the potential to be had it been given the sun,
air, water, soil and food it needed. And so it is with children.
They cannot realize their potential if they are given only a
limited supply of the things they need to thrive.
Children have very little control over their environment. They
must depend on us to keep them safe and to meet their basic
physical needs. They must also depend on us to do our best to
provide for them the most nurturing physical and emotional
environment possible. When a child's environment is not meeting
his needs or is causing stress, he may not be able to identify
those needs or stresses let alone communicate them with words.
Children communicate their stress and their needs through their
behavior. A child's behavior is always telling us something.
Acting-out behavior is usually a call for help. A child's behavior
may be telling us, "I'm over-stimulated" or "I need
space to move around." When we tell a child to "stop
behaving that way" what they may hear is "stop trying to
tell me what's wrong or what you need." My many years of
experience of being with children has taught me that when we take
the time to try to figure out what their behavior is telling us,
looking at their environment is a useful place to begin.
|There is considerable research
confirming that when children are given what they need to build a
solid foundation in the early years, they have more strength to
deal with whatever comes their way later. Children are like
seedlings. When we raise seedlings in a greenhouse, in rich soil
with good drainage and provide them the right amount of water and
sunlight, and protect them from the wind, they grow deep roots and
sturdy stocks. When it's time to transplant them out into the
world they will be not only hardy enough to survive, but vigorous
enough to thrive. Children are not that different from seedlings.
If we want them to develop deep roots and sturdy stocks so that
they will be hardy enough to survive and vigorous enough to
thrive, we must make their home their greenhouse. The family must
be a rich soil that nourishes them. We must provide them with the
water of our love, the sunshine of our attention and our
protection from the winds of stress that weaken them.
Providing our children with nurturing environments is more of a
challenge in today's world than it has ever been. Many children do
not live in homes with yards and gardens to explore or in
neighborhoods where they can spend hours playing outside. Even the
children who do live in such places often have so many scheduled
activities that they have very little time to spend in their yards
and gardens. Many children are spending more of their time inside
buildings than outdoors at earlier and earlier ages. When children
are in school, unless they participate in outdoor sports, they
spend most of their time inside.
Just as children have little control over their environment,
there are many things parents have little control over in our
world environment. None of us alone has the power to end all the
crime, violence, hunger, pollution, and injustice in the world.
Every day when we step outside our door, these dangers are still
going to be out there. What we do have the power to do is to
create home, school and community environments that nurture and
protect our children's potential. To do this will require that we
make some changes. Many parents already feel stretched to their
limit trying to juggle earning a living and just making sure their
children are in a safe environment. We may think we don't have the
time or the energy to make the changes we would need to make to
create a better environment.
Creating more nurturing environments will actually give us more
time and more enjoyable time with our children. Struggling with
children's unmet-need behaviors is time-consuming and tiring. The
more time children spend in environments that nurture them, the
more delightful they are to be with. The few hours we spend
putting up a hammock in the yard or on the porch will give us back
many hours of joy and comfort, hanging out in the hammock, telling
and reading stories, cuddling and watching the clouds go by
together. Creating more nurturing spaces will look different for
every family depending on what they have to work with. The size
doesn't matter. Even small changes can make a big difference in
our children's lives. Whether we plant a big garden full of
flowers or put little pots of petunias on our stairs, seeing and
smelling those flowers will nurture everyone in the family.
So, how do we create more nurturing environments for children?
I spent months researching this idea and a great deal of time and
energy this spring and summer creating a more nurturing
environment for the child in me and for the children in my life.
Have you ever heard young children talk about how much they
love it when the power goes out? Without electricity no one is on
the computer or watching television. The whole family gathers in
one room by candlelight and tells stories or plays games. Our
lives today are often so hectic that many homes feel more like a
home base where the family sleeps, showers, does laundry, stores
their belongings, sometimes cooks and eats meals, and watches
television. For the first seven years of life children need their
home and family to be their most nurturing environment. Since many
young children now spend more of their waking hours away from home
than at home, they need a nurturing home environment more than
Creating nurturing environments for our children means meeting
their physical survival needs of food, clothing, shelter and
protection. Creating environments in which children can thrive
means consciously creating warm, loving, sensory rich environments
where their physical, emotional and spiritual needs are
recognized, honored, and met by their family and their community.
It is true that children "live what they learn".
Children absorb and imitate what they experience in their
environment. Their exterior environment molds their interior
environment. Just as area is a product of length times width,
human beings are a product of nature times nurture. The potential
children are born with will be limited by or nurtured by their
environment. A nurturing environment is one that gives children
the security and opportunity to discover themselves and their
In a nurturing environment the family spends more time gathered
around the table than around the television. The family table is
where the family is both nourished and nurtured. Working on
projects, drinking hot cocoa, playing board games, learning to
peel carrots and roll out cookie dough, having tea parties and
eating birthday cake together turns the family table into a
nurturing "center" where many of the most important,
interesting and nurturing things happen in the home.
A rocking chair is an essential piece of furniture in a
nurturing environment. Children crave the nurturing of touch.
Whether we are soothing a baby or reading stories to a young
child, rocking is nurturing to both the adult and the child.
Children rarely refuse an invitation to be rocked, especially if
it also means hearing a story or a song. The rocking chair should
be in the room where we will use it the most. We love rocking
chairs so much we have one or two in almost every room. Outside, a
hammock creates another nurturing place to cuddle, read, sing,
tell stories and rock.
Gathering around a fire has always been a symbol of physical
and emotional warmth. Children love gathering around a campfire or
fireplace. Even if we don't go camping or have a fireplace or wood
stove to gather around, simply lighting a candle at the dinner
table can create the warm feeling of gathering around the fire.
Another quick, and convenient source of warmth is the clothes
dryer. Imagine how nurturing it feels to get out of a bath and be
wrapped in a warm bath towel and dressed in warm flannel pajamas.
One of our favorite warm comforts is the rice pillow you heat up
in the microwave to warm cold feet, sooth aching muscles or just
to cuddle up with.
Children love to be in or near water. Just filling a plastic
tub with water and some empty containers provides hours of
contentment for young ones. Whenever we take children to the
ocean, the lake, the river, a pool, or put them in the bathtub, we
provide a nurturing environment. A table fountain is now in the
same price range as a toaster and a fountain brings the soothing
sight and sound of water right into our home. The place everyone
wants to sit at our house is in the rocking chair that faces the
wood stove and is beside our table fountain.
When we garden with children they feel connected to the earth
and nature. Children need to touch the earth and feel connected to
living things. They love to dig in the dirt, plant seeds and
seedlings and watch them grow. Even if we don't have space for a
garden or know the first thing about it we can still give our
children the nurturing experience of gardening. We can put a seed
in a jar of soil, transplant marigolds into a window box, plant a
tree on a child's birthday or measure and record the amazing daily
growth of an amaryllis during the holidays. Any connection to
living, growing things creates a nurturing environment for
The living things most children love to be connected to are
animals. Most children dream of having a pet to love and care for.
I once read that it is a good thing for children to have animals
to care for - it reminds them that humans are not the only living
creatures on the earth. Children love to feed the ducks, birds and
squirrels in the park. Hanging a birdfeeder where children can
watch it through the window is a great way to give children a
connection to nature. Even if our living situation does not allow
pets, we can provide children with access to animals through
friends, relatives, neighbors and community.
Part of creating nurturing environments is spending time with
our children in nurturing places. With everyone in the family so
often going in different directions, it's important that families
have places to go together. The local library provides the family
with more than books. When we attend story hours and special
activities, the library becomes a nurturing environment for our
children. For many families their place of worship provides a
nurturing environment. One of the most family-friendly, nurturing
environments I know is a local family dance at every second and
fourth Saturday. The dances are taught each time so parents and
children can learn them together. There is live music and children
dance with their parents, siblings and other families. Afterward
there is a potluck dinner for all the hungry dancers. Parents have
as much fun as the children do - it's great exercise, and a
wonderful opportunity to experience community.
As children get older they have a greater need for the
nurturing of community. Parenting never used to be and was never
intended to be a one- or two-person job. It does take a village to
raise a child. Since we no longer live in villages, creating a
community for our children is vital to creating a nurturing
environment. The calendar in Parent & Family is a rich
resource that lists many activities and events families can do
together. When we create opportunities for children to spend time
with people who play musical instruments, tell stories, dance,
sing, paint, garden, cook, sew, knit, weave and build things, we
provide a nurturing environment for their imagination, creativity,
One of the most important aspects of a nurturing environment is
ritual. If we grew up in a family where rituals were an important
part of family life we are more likely to perpetuate rituals in
our own family, but even if we don't recall many rituals, we can
create new ones for our family. Lighting a candle at the dinner
table, reading at bedtime, having pizza on Friday night, picking
apples in the fall, and carving pumpkins at Halloween become
rituals when we do them consistently. Daily, weekly, and seasonal
rituals give children a sense of security, stability, and
belonging. These family rituals become an anchor for children as
they navigate their way through a world filled with inconsistency
One of the reasons children love the holidays is the nurturing
rituals that accompany them. The things we do with our children
give them more than anything we can ever buy for them. Decorating
our home, preparing special foods, making gifts of love, and
attending special services, gatherings, and performances together
create the nurturing environment that families need throughout the
year. When we learn to incorporate all the nurturing elements of
the holidays into our daily lives we can keep the spirit of the
holidays alive in our hearts and our homes all year.