My vantage point is as an American mother raising two young children in urban China. We live in an intensely developing city, as most cities across China. You cannot walk a block before running into a new construction project, or a building that had just been demolished. Since moving here, I have often craved to take my boys on picnics. Once all packed up, we were dismayed to find that most of the scarce grassy patches had signs forbidding people from stepping or sitting on the grass. Granted the signs also mentioned they were trying to protect these poor stranded “little lives”. (Once living, evenly briefly, in China, you realize the irony of this due to the density of the human population). I desperately searched for places for my active boys to run, climb and throw rocks, smell the soil and admire the trees and bugs, within simple access to our home in the city. When we adventurously set out to find camping areas outside the city, we found most available flat land was used for agriculture (alas, we couldn’t set our tent down in a rice paddy), or stream shorelines were full of trash, which I won’t go into details over. However discouraging this could be, it certainly gave us new perspectives. We were searching for recreation in areas that were, quite frankly, barely rising above economic sustainability.
Despite these encounters with sometimes distressing environmental and economic issues, these bouts into the countryside became our nourishment, our release from dusty roads and crowds, our adventures in exploration. We also live in a province, named Guizhou, anciently known for its mountainous isolation and mysterious treasures found therein. Indeed, it is completely covered by stunning karst topography (cone-like mountains and caves), and a sub-tropical climate with forests upon forests (either protected or on the slopes that cannot be farmed) brimming full of amazing life. I have never seen more beautiful butterflies, and my boys and I catch new insect species every week. The landscape lends itself to creating hundreds of waterfalls, which can usually
be found by winding through the little footpaths along and through farmland, terraced fantastically upon the mountains.
I knew this treasure just needed to be opened, so I started looking for ideas and support. About one year ago I first visited the Children & Nature Network and sister website Nature Rocks, after having read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. Within a few clicks I was introduced to this website and its growing network of links upon links to other resources and people all dedicated and acting to bring more and more children, oftentimes their own children, back into nature’s playgrounds. I no longer felt alone in this endeavor. The only problem was, I was all the way in China, and felt rather challenged about how to apply all these wonderful resources to cultural and physical realities of urban Chinese families.
We did start finding little green areas to explore, even within the city. Our children’s kindergarten, situated inside a large apartment compound, also happened to have superb landscaping. Shallow ponds were surrounded by bamboo, gingko trees, rhododendron shrubs, evergreens, and carefully watched bonsai plants, to name just a few. The kids still weren’t allowed to sit on the grass, or throw rocks into the pond, but we did watch two generations of tadpoles grow up, and have numerous rambles through the tree covered walkways.
We also found the city’s forest park, on the outskirts of the city. Once we found this place, we rarely stray elsewhere! Protected forests soar into the sky. Neatly carved out stone steps lead up the hills, lined by low-lying flowering shrubs. There are trails upon trails to explore. And we found grass to sit upon, and from which to catch hundreds of crickets and grasshoppers. (Of course there are access issues to this park, and many others. It is mostly accessible to only people with cars, a growing but still minority group of families).
Soon we found other places in and around our city of Guiyang. There are other parks, and farms open to guests. We usually went in groups of other friends, locals who knew and liked to explore these places. And they were also urban parents, interested in providing space for their children to run and play and to release them from the weekly pressures of competitive schools. The time was ripe to start a Family Nature Club, as described by the
Children & Nature Network.
At this point, I struggle to describe what has happened, except to say that, it has happened. I hardly had to advertise, or gain interest. When we picked a spot to spend time in, we would tell one or two families. These families were interested. But as the Chinese way unfolds, no event is natural without bringing along another
friend (and their family), who many times requests another friend to attend. It builds, and it builds quickly. To say the least, I was nowhere prepared for this. Even suggesting an RSVP results in jolly laughter, as if saying, “My goodness, what are you afraid of! We’re one happy family!”
Each event has unfolded naturally and joyfully, no matter the numbers. In the beginning I found myself concerned about the long lines of caravans (perhaps this isn’t exactly a carbon neutral footprint??), or managing large groups so that individuals would have opportunities to find personal connections with our natural spaces. At the end of the day, every time, I knew these details will work themselves out with a little more organizing. Regardless, each event has been amazing.
As described in the research and on many of the other blogs, at our events I also witness the benefits in the carefree playfulness of the children, and the unbridling of their imaginations in a techno-free environment. The parents and grandparents are relaxed, content to watch their children interact with the same nurturing, amazing playmate-the soil, the trees, rocks and bugs-they had as a child. Indeed, the Chinese parents share many of the same desires as parents across the globe—to give their children a healthy and multi-dimensional environment to grow, play and develop in. (To establish this common ground, among parents of all nationalities, has implications far more outreaching than I can describe here).
But here in China, there is something more going on. The starting point is different. Despite a rich and historically long foundation in philosophies based on nature (Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism), the children growing up, especially in the cities, are rarely even exposed to natural areas. Most are living daily with continuous sounds and images of construction. Their jungles are of concrete. Elderly exercise equipment can be found in most small communities, but children’s equipment is extremely rare, and rusty and unsafe at best, or at a local fast food restaurant brimming full of people.
Natural play is even rarer. While watching my children play by the pond near their kindergarten, other children and their parents had gathered, a usual occurrence. But when I allowed my children to dip their fingers in the water, even dip their toes, many parents expressed shock at allowing my precious bundle to do something so apparently dangerous, not to mention opening up the world for sniffles and sneezes later on. This same
parenting cultural clash occurred for most natural play-splashing in puddles, digging around in the dirt, sitting on the ground. The idea that the children will get dirty and catch a cold far outweighed any of the benefits they were
gaining from interacting with the natural world around them. (Although, I am often reminded by my husband that washing machines are much more prevalent in the U.S., and most mothers and grandmothers in China have enough hand washing of clothes to encourage more dirt stained shoes and pants).
Another challenge to natural play is that the academic competition is so strong here that studying is priority. Most children come from homes without siblings, due to the current one-child policy. Parents and two sets of grandparents are all available to root for their precious child’s success. Weekends are full of extra tutoring, English, calligraphy, traditional watercolors, music, martial arts or other sports lessons. It’s as if there’s no time to lose, every stroke of the calligraphy brush, every word memorized, is a step in the right direction.
Last autumn I enrolled my oldest son in a soccer class. I expected to carry him to these classes a few times a week for maybe two or three months. The parents I met there had been toting their sons to the class for six months already, prepared to carry on for years to come. That was how they believed the children may be competitive players one day.
However, things are changing slowly. This summer I was invited to help at a newly developed summer camp. I’ll never forget the careful watchfulness and curiosity, and later surprise, as camp leaders allowed me to introduce the “fairy home” creation game on the forest floor. This was an entirely different activity from the more “scientific” ones earlier introduced, like species identification and water testing. After just a few suggestions that the children may build little homes made from the sticks, rocks, leaves, and pinecones for the little fairies all around, the children instantly got to work. They knowingly gathered what they needed, and placed the items in fantastically unique and beautiful little homes. It was apparent to me afterwards, that though children across the world quite enjoy this game, caretakers across the world have not necessarily known to introduce it for its creative and playful merits alone (which can of course breed the seeds of innovation). But yet, a simple introduction, and they get busy, naturally.
The children’s environment in China is vastly different than in western countries. Parents, mostly within a rising and educated middle class, are beginning to expect more. I admit, this experience, searching out nature for my family, started out as a purely selfish pursuit, for my own and my family’s welfare. Once beginning to connect with other parents here in China, and introducing them to what is possible with simple nature interactions, it’s as if a spontaneous fire was ignited. In China, the modern pressures are great, and outlets so, so few. Time and play in nature not only provides a soulful, natural outlet, but may also enhance children’s natural development, boosting health, creativity, innovation and confidence for competing in the future academic and work world. And this is why I say this movement now playing out in China will make a profound impact. The parents in China will do almost anything to provide their children the finest they can offer today and for the future. Likewise will the parents in the West. For the children and nature movement, it’s a common ground that has potential to shake the world.