It was a hot and windless Cape Town November day. I was in a concrete courtyard at the Cape Town Science Centre. A group of children, aged between 9 and 11 were taking part in an Agents of Change project about climate change. I was worried about the children sweltering in the bright orange life jackets they were wearing, but I also loved the place and loved the project. Children sat at wooden tables and spoke about the outdoors. “I worry about safety.” one said. “When you stay at home and cook or watch television nobody can hurt you.”
These children came from an underprivileged part of Cape Town and had come to the Science Centre to learn coding as well as to take part in our project. I, who had only ever been trusted to look after a cat, was encouraging them to share their feelings on nature. The feelings were varied but had a common beat. The children loved being outdoors, even when they couldn’t. They spoke of solitude under a tree, sharing happy times outdoors with family and the richness of connection. Many of the stories brought enthusiasm and laughter from other members of the group.
Agents of Change normally takes place at the water’s edge. Children get to see the sea, to reflect on the crashing waves. This time they looked at flower borders which surrounded the outside courtyard. There were many lavender bushes and a couple of other plants, but not as many as you’d find in an average suburban garden. The children went off, some running their hands over the lavender and then inhaling the oils, others squatting down to pick a flower. They seemed happy enough. Nobody was sweltering. But it was the reflections they gave later on which really staggered me. “Look at that flower, how bright is that colour…you are also bright and special like that flower.” Or “The flowers are special, just as special as I am.”
What was going on? Why did the children share such value with flowers?
David Abram shares that once, long ago, before the printing press, flowers and animals were the basis of all stories. This was at a time when imagination was not captured onto the page. Instead, tales were told about the land and meaning was shaped according to where we lived. Back then, plants, animals and people had a deep awareness of one another. To understand the land was to survive. It wasn’t romantic or anthropomorphic, just essential.
Now, children don’t have to notice what happens outside of their windows. The world of television and video games offers up great entertainment and being in danger online-only threatens your avatar. Yet Andy Fisher, the Eco-psychologist, stresses that children are missing out. Instead of living in a world where all beings have a place, a natural world where the human soul can connect with other living creatures, children are drawn into a world of products and competition, where they will always need to be, or have, ‘more’ to be happy.
The importance of spending time outdoors
Simply by spending time outdoors, David Abram explains that children can ‘come to their senses’. Nature offers a depth which is lacking on screen. Nature offers up scents and sounds. Different shades and textures can compete with the most intricate of toys. The texture of the bark is different from that of glossy leaves or earthy loam scattered over a newly planted flower bed. Children can hear birds sing or frogs croak. The rustle of leaves in the wind adds a different note. They get to balance while walking on stones and to smell the scent of the leaves in the rain. Children also learn that they share their breath with many other living beings, both plant and animal, who live and imagine alongside them.
It’s not the ability to view nature that deepens a sense of belonging. It is having nature look back. We learn about climate change from posters and schools. Children hear about greenhouse gasses and the threat of plastic in oceans. They will even recite them. But this is not the same as seeing penguins on the Cape Town beaches swim out to sea, the baby blues sheltered between them. All of a sudden, chip packets in the water hold a different meaning.
If all of life has value, if it is bright and alive, filled with beauty and wonder, then our children realise they are wonderful too, and that they too matter. As Theodore Rozak explains, children have a natural affinity to life. This affinity assists them in creating a deep sense of belonging to the world, even during times of crisis.
My baby, Ava, is already fascinated by plants and animals, will pull flowers towards her to get a closer look, and will point out lizards. She loves to watch birds in trees and is even fascinated by the dappled light of leaves. Whenever she is upset, nature offers the perfect solution.
While modern life is often stressful and parents feel exhausted taking their children from one frenzied activity to another, nature offers a stress-free alternative. In the golden light reflected from the Cape Town see, I’ve seen children awaken to a deeper spirituality while faced with beauty. ‘This sea,” one child said “Is God’s. This is why it is so beautiful.” She raced off to embrace the waves, her body powerful, her breath heavy. Floating in the waves, she was a picture of joy. Children are our future. A connection to life is the greatest gift we can give.
Nicci Attfield is mom to Ava and Danny, and partner to Jacques. She has an honours in psychology and a masters in diversity studies. She enjoys working towards a world where children feel safe.