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Creating More Nurturing Environments for Children

"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.

If a child melts down at the grocery store when you tell her she may not have a candy bar, is her behavior manipulation or is it a communication that she can't handle disappointment on top of sensory overload from the florescent lights and the hum of the refrigeration units? If a child continues to climb over the back of the couch when you have repeatedly told him to stop, is the child trying to get the attention he needs or is he expressing his body's need for something appropriate to climb on? How will we know when a child's behavior is a communication of a stress or an unmet need related to the environment? When we look at a child's environment to try to figure out what might be causing his behavior, we need to consider every part of it. The air children breathe, the light they see by, the words and sounds they hear, the food they eat, the water they drink, the feel of the clothes they wear, the things they play with, and the attitudes and emotions of the people around them all affect how they grow, develop, think, feel and behave.

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 ever.

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 world.

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 children.

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, and self-esteem.

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 and uncertainty.

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.

Pam Leo is the author of Connection Parenting: Parenting through Connection instead of Coercion, through Love instead of Fear (Wyatt-Mackenzie 2005) and is the Connection Parenting instructor for the Academy for Coaching Parents, International. Pam has been writing the Empowered Parents column for the Parent & Family paper in Maine for the last ten years. For more information, articles and reprint permissions, visit Connection Parenting

© 1989 by Pam Leo and Connection Parenting™ Reprinted with permission of the author.