Novelist | Singer
Richard Louv spoke at Brookwood School in Manchester-by-the-Sea the other day. His new book Vitamin N follows on the heels of his other two ground-breaking works Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle. Last Child was a wake-up call to our nation to recognize the necessity of outdoor creative play for children to develop into sound, complete adults. Nature Principle is targeted more toward adults and the restorative period we are now entering, the most creative period in history. Vitamin N contains 500 suggestions about how to incorporate nature and outside time into our kids’ lives. Nature provides peace, essential microbes, fresh air, exercise. Though we live in houses, nature is essentially our “home,” and knowledge of surroundings increases our safety and enhances our life experience.
I have followed Louv’s writings since Last Child. As an Interpretive Coordinator for Massachusetts State Parks, I have experienced fear and hesitation from parents of small children about being outdoors, but more than anything, unfamiliarity. Of course we want to infuse our children with nature, the natural order, sunshine, and clean air. But in order to succeed, we need the parents.
Anytime is a good time to start. Parents sometimes feel inadequate about teaching their kids about nature, but lucky for you, there are materials everywhere. And the season for ease of identification of plants and trees is hot upon us.
The magic has begun. The natural changes in autumn provide parents with a brilliant opportunity to teach children – a virtual science project surrounding us on all sides, the sensory delight of color, technical lessons of chemical reactions, all contained in a spiritually magical setting – the fall colors emerge.
The process is complex; terms like anthocyanin and carotenoid, chlorophyll of every persuasion, biological processes that can blow the mind, all manifested in a gorgeous display of nature’s best. The best part is – you don’t have to know all the scientific details to introduce your kids to natural species.
And for the nature lover – a chance to easily put names to key species. Every plant has its own composition and as a result, its own unique color and window of change.
At this writing, the red maples are at peak, and are concentrated in wet environments, stream beds, and low-lying areas. These are the reds that drive the fall leaf peeping schedule. The change of colors continues for weeks, yet as different species of trees attain their hues, we experience several peaks of color.
Early in the autumnal change, nature spotlights one of the more ubiquitous species in New England – poison ivy. Right now, poison ivy is visible from hundreds of yards, particularly the tree and telephone climbing individuals. It is bright red and surrounds the trunk sometimes as high as 15 or 20 feet, a spectacular and successful species that also provides plenty of berries for wildlife winter repast. Now is the time to teach children about this noxious plant. Once they can identify it, they can avoid it, unlike yours truly, who suffered from horrible episodes every summer of childhood. Look closely at the leaves and learn them now. Your kids (and you!) will remember what they look like.
Blueberry bushes turn their gorgeous red-purple, Virginia creeper scarlet (both anthocyanins), and invasives become show pieces. Just drive on any highway at this time of year. The oriental bittersweet becomes bright yellow and lays in virtual sheets over trees on the side of the road. This time of year, you can see how pervasive this introduced plant has become.
Following the red maples with their brilliant scarlet, the sugar maples bloom in orange and yellow combinations that will make your heart sing. They are unique beacons in the less brilliant surrounding palette. Identifying the sugars now will allow you to collect sap in the spring with your kids, providing yet another opportunity to teach the amazing lessons of nature, and consume its products. When a child eats something they have harvested themselves, it takes on a whole new meaning and can make them feel more secure in nature. We have gotten so far from the circle of life in recent history that food appears to originate from a store, rather than from natural foodstuffs in the world. If children see themselves as part of nature rather than separate from it, the fear of outdoors melts away and becomes a stage for creative exploration.
Take your time. Pick up a couple of field guides and page through them. Learn and then teach one or two basics. Feel the texture of the bark, of the leaves. Press some colorful leaves (but not poison ivy!) to laminate later. They make cute refrigerator magnets; a taste of New England you can send in a Christmas card. Your kids’ knowledge will impress their friends and draw them closer to the natural world.
And remember to have fun. Exploring nature is enjoyable as well as educational, and has the added benefits of fresh air and exercise. Find your local parks and make friends with the trees, now shutting themselves down for the winter and giving us the true magic of autumn colors.