If you have children in your life – as a parent, grandparent, educator, or in any other way, the question of “What Should I Do?” takes on a particular urgency. You have likely asked yourself how you can enable them to navigate the complex and uncertain times ahead – to greet the future with creativity, flexibility, resilience, and joy.
“How can we nurture and raise our children so they can grow into adults who are able to survive, thrive, and contribute to shaping a new and different future?” is how I pose this question to myself as I look into the hopeful eyes of the children whose lives I have the opportunity to touch through my work.
If you have found your way to this website, you already know that the “rules” are about to change; in fact, they are already changing. You already know that most people in our society are not yet aware of the depth of these changes.
The old paradigm of our culture, based on limitless growth, endless acquisition, and the belief that more is always better, is rapidly changing as we run up against the limits of a finite planet. Some people, myself among them, question whether these were ever genuine markers of what a good life means.
Already some people are beginning to create a new story about what a good life can mean, exploring ways we can live in mutual relationship with our planet, rather than viewing it as something to be exploited.
We know this transition, unraveling (or by any other name), is likely to be difficult, perhaps painful beyond our imaginings. While we can see the outline dimly on the horizon, the flow of history always plays itself out a bit differently from what anyone expected.
So, how can we share this new, emerging story of what a good life means with the children in our lives? Perhaps more importantly, how can we offer them resources to enable them, as young adults, to continue writing and shaping this story through their own vision?
Those of us who are adults today have the opportunity to craft tools to place in the hands of those who come after. This is true whether we are talking about our own dearly-loved children and grandchildren or children we are entrusted with as educators, counselors, or in other ways.
Understanding that we prepare the ground so future generations can write their own story has everything to do with an approach I have developed through my work, which I now share with you.
Tools for Shaping Their Future
For over 20 years, part of my work has been with children in difficult circumstances (children in Child Protective Services care, children who have experienced abuse, immigrant and refugee youth, and others). Daily I asked myself, what could I give them that might really last, that they could hold on to and use as they charted their uncertain future?
Increasingly, I wondered about the futures of all children, and how it would be very different from what any of them, or us, were being told by our society to expect. I saw that adults inevitably educate children for the world they inhabit, which is always different from the world children will live in as adults – and that this is true now in ways that it hasn’t been for previous generations.
I realized that the things I had developed to offer youth in difficult circumstances were exactly the things all youth need today to grow into and through the difficult times people and our planet are facing, to enable them in their own way to help shape a new and different future.
These are things that any adult can learn how to offer the children in their lives, things that can be brought into a wide range of situations. They are adaptable for youth of any age, and can be shaped to fit differing inclinations and interests.
At the core of my approach are four qualities and strengths adults can cultivate with the children in their lives and a wide variety of practices, activities, and experiences that can nurture them. You’ll notice that these things are interconnected and reinforce each other.
These four qualities and strengths are:
For youth to survive, thrive, and shape their own vision in a challenging and rapidly changing world, it is essential that they learn to know, value, and trust their inner voice, so that they may become deeply rooted in a sense of self. Beyond this, it is important for children (and adults) to understand that they have gifts to bring to this world, something valuable to offer to the times in which they live. I tell children that this is true even if they do not yet know what it is, because they are still growing and it is yet to be discovered – and that such discovery can be as joyful as unwrapping a birthday present.
Creativity and Imagination
“We are each born with a wild and fertile imagination, but to maintain that creative current and allow it to reach its full potential, it must be encouraged and exercised throughout childhood,” writes Bill Plotkin in Nature and the Human Soul, a visionary work exploring the eco-psychology of human development.
Creativity and Imagination are an integral part of what it means to be human. These invaluable qualities in normal times become even more crucial in times of change. By nurturing these qualities with the children in our lives, we offer them ways of knowing and growing their inner selves, finding personal meaning and enjoyment in life (especially valuable in complex and changing times), and, perhaps most importantly, as a way of meeting and seeking solutions to, or ways of being with, challenges and difficulties in life. Through cultivating creativity and imagination, we offer children resources for growing into and through the coming times, and for making their contribution to re-visioning what a good life means.
Connection with Nature
We are a part of the natural world, and evolved within her embrace. Knowing ourselves as intimately connected to nature is perhaps as ancient as humanity itself. Feeling at home in nature, finding delight in the beauty of the natural world, knowing you are part of the web of life, are essential ways of exploring and strengthening inner self and the ability to act in this world and on its behalf.
“Imagination and wild nature are deeply and intricately related…” writes Bill Plotkin in Nature and the Human Soul (New World Library, 2007. ISBN 978-1577315513), “Every child needs adults who can help him experience his full membership in the natural world so that he knows instinctively that he fully belongs here and that he is as wild as any animal, wildflower, or cloud. Nature must become (or remain) the child’s friend, ally, and teacher – his home…”
Richard Louv, in is masterful work, Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1565126053), describes the importance of experience with wild nature to the emotional, psychological, intellectual and physical development of children, the cost to our children of our society’s increasing separation from nature, and simple things we can do to begin to repair this breach.
It is perhaps our culture’s break with nature that has led our society to view our planet as merely a collection of things to be exploited. This, in turn, has brought us to this point of impending crisis, this “perfect storm” of the 3 E’s (Energy, Environment, Economy).
A revaluing of humanity’s connection with nature can be a starting point for coming generations to construct a society and culture based on a more integrated human relationship with our planet and all life on earth.
Joy, Gratitude, Wonder
We live in a magnificent world. The ability to find joy, gratitude, and wonder for the many good things life offers can enrich our lives immeasurably, strengthening our sense of self and our connection with the world in which we live. This valuable life practice in “normal” times can become even more important in times of turmoil and change. This practice can also offer a sense of the gifts we bring to this world and point our attention toward the places where we want to pour our passion and energy.
A Note About Resilience
It almost goes without saying that children (and adults) will need resilience to meet the coming times with all their challenges, dangers, and yes, opportunities. Resilience is a complex interweaving of many qualities. Core resilience is rooted in two things, the ability to be grounded in self (self concept and self knowledge) and the ability to respond creatively and flexibly to change. You may notice this is basically the same as the qualities of Inner Self and Creativity & Imagination. So by nurturing these qualities, you are actually growing resilience.
Through Their Own Vision
There are a myriad of activities, practices, and experiences that can nurture these qualities and strengths. Many have developed during my years of working with youth. Many have been developed by others. Many more will undoubtedly be developed in the future. You may notice that there are already ways you are nurturing some, or all, of these qualities and strengths with the children in your lives.
Below I share a trio of simple yet powerful practices that you can easily incorporate into your relations with youth. Notice how they are interwoven, and how each nurtures several of the four qualities and strengths listed above.
We can create opportunities for children to spend unstructured time in nature, with no pre-determined plan, following what draws their attention, alone or accompanied by an adult who supports their wandering, following the child’s direction and pace. This typical childhood experience of not so long ago is increasingly rare in urban and suburban environments and is very different from today’s usual approach to nature. Adults can help children deepen this experience by asking questions about thing children are drawn to. (For example: “Tell me about what makes this special for you? If this rock – or tree or stream – could talk, what might it say? How does this make you feel?”)
Wandering builds a connection with nature and also develops the sense of inner self. This easy yet potent practice can have far-reaching impact. Renowned Earth Scholar Thomas Berry shares an example of this in his book The Great Work (Broadway, 2000. ISBN 978-0609804995). He describes a moment at age eleven, when he wandered in a wild meadow behind his family home, “A magic moment, this experience gave to my life something that seems to explain my thinking at a more profound level than almost any other experience I can remember.” Berry’s pioneering ideas in the fields of Deep Ecology, Eco-psychology, and Eco-theology have touched, inspired, and shaped the thinking of countless people worldwide (myself among them). The seed of his inspiration was planted in a wild meadow when he was eleven. Through offering children the experience of wandering, we can empower them to shape the world of tomorrow.
Free play, daydreaming
Making time for unstructured play is especially important in today’s overscheduled society. Adults can encourage children to follow their imagination using things that call out to them (twigs, leaves and pebbles, empty cartons and bottles, art supplies, their own toys, etc.) They can also support children by following them in their play, traveling with them, asking questions and listening, not directing or imposing. This nurtures the qualities of creativity and imagination and also strengthens the inner self.
“It is natural and essential for the child to fully engage and enjoy her imagination, a most fundamental resource for exploring the world and the self,” writes Bill Plotkin in Nature and the Human Soul.
Through free play and daydreaming, children explore and expand their understanding of their inner selves and discover their unique relationship with the world around them. Free play and daydreaming offers a safe structure for them to explore their emotions, including their fears, and to seek solutions for imaginary-world problems that can carry over into “real world” problem-solving skills.
Seeking Life’s Treasures
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder,” wrote environmentalist and author Rachel Carson (quoted by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods), he or she “needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
Guiding children in noticing the things they love in this world develops their capacity for joy, gratitude, and wonder. Knowing what brings you joy helps define and develop who you are, strengthening the inner self. Adults can help youth deepen this practice by asking questions about the things children love, and by suggesting that they gather items that represent these things (or write and draw about these things). Younger children often like using treasure boxes. Adolescents often enjoy keeping treasure journals or using photography. This again strengthens the sense of self and can help keep a person grounded in times of turmoil.
To Touch a Future Sky
Cultivating these qualities and strengths with the children in your lives and offering them these activities, practices, and experiences is not a one-time event. Rather, it is something to weave into the fabric of their lives, evolving as they grow, and with the particular interests and inclinations of each child or group of children in mind.
As you offer these things to the children in your life, you are also offering them to yourself. You may find your relationship with your inner self deepened, your connection with the natural world expanded, your creativity, imagination, and sense of joy, gratitude, and wonder enlarged.
Perhaps most importantly, you may find your own feelings about the future shifting. Yes, there is more than enough to be worried about, more than enough fear and anxiety to go around. We know things will be difficult and challenging, in ways we expect and ways we have not yet foreseen. By offering the children in our lives inner tools and resources to not only survive and thrive, but to shape their own vision of what is possible, we will have, in our own way, contributed to the writing of a new story about what a good life can mean – we will have touched a future sky.
Dianne Monroe is an Expressive Arts Facilitator, mentor, writer, and photographer with over 20 years experience creating and leading experiential learning and arts-based programs. She offers workshops, presentations and individual mentoring on various themes, including Raising Children in Changing Times. Her focus is blending Expressive Arts and creativity with nature for personal, social and planetary transformation. Visit her website (www.diannemonroe.com) or email her to learn more.