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Aching and yearning for the wild: The experience of children in the garden

Autumn leaves

Autumn leaves surround me
In the garden today.
The breeze whirls around me
Blowing those leaves away.
Birds cheeping in my ears
So sweetly they sing
A tree branch which looks rather strange
It looks like a large wooden fork or something.
Trees overhead shade me,
From the blazing sunlight.
I’m sitting in my first Magic Spot
And it is a wonderful sight.

(10 year old girl)

“All young people ache for nature as part of their bread and water, their creaturely sustenance,” so wrote Robert Coles, (author of The Spiritual Life of Children)[1] in his introduction to The Geography of Childhood.[2] The book is a good read, it reveals the depth and extent of that yearning of childhood.I personally learned to appreciate children’s deep yearning to be in nature by working and playing with children at an outdoor eco-activity centre during their residential visits over a period of 17 years. The one activity I most enjoyed was facilitating Magic Spots.

Magic Spots is the name given to an activity embedded in the Earthkeepers Programme of The Institute for Earth Education.[3] They are times of solitude in the natural world, sharpening nonverbal skills like ‘watching and waiting, silencing and stilling, opening and receiving’[4] reflecting on and articulating silence and interconnectedness. John Chryssavgis’ description of silence articulates what this experience can be for children:

“A way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening….it is a way of interiority, of stopping and then of exploring the cellars of the heart and the centre of life…silence is never merely a cessation of words…rather it is the pause that holds together all the words both spoken and unspoken. Silence is the glue that connects our attitudes and actions. It is fullness not emptiness, it is not an absence but the awareness of a presence.”[5]

As part of their residential experience during our outdoor education programmes at Ringsfield EcoActivity Centre6 each child chooses a special place where they are comfortable and are not distracted by the sight of others. It might be in one of the woods, in the long grass of the meadow, or leaning against a tree in the orchard. They will return to this spot for at least two organised times during their stay, but also, of course, at any other time during their free time. This is their ‘Magic Spot’. It is part of their experience of the natural world; it is also an intentional introduction to silence and solitude. The time spent alone is usually about ten minutes for the first experience and lengthens to perhaps twenty minutes, or more, by the end of the week. The children go to their Magic Spots in silence and maintain silence until the group reconvenes for some reflective feed-back. They sit, look, listen, smell, feel, think, watch and, if they want to, write or draw in their diaries at the time or later.  It is understood that the diaries, are private journals. No one will see what they write unless they wish to show some one. When they do share we insist that this is not the time to correct spelling, grammar or writing skills.

As soon as i started my magic spot, i knew that peacefulness had began.  Silently i sat down trying not to russuel the leaves.  Suddenly i found myself surrounded by stunning plant and flowers.  I started to wonder how long i could keep this quiet.7

(8 year old girl)

Imagine that our children are yearning. Imagine that they are yearning to be at home in the natural world, nestled in the shelter of trees, peacefully enjoying the bumps, examining the soil, listening to the leaves and twigs, silently watching the bugs, appreciating even the stinging nettles and the quiet(s). This might not be exactly what we might immediately expect from young children but this is my experience facilitating and sharing Magic Spots with many, many hundreds of children. I discovered that over 60% of the children regarded Magic Spots as their favourite activity and over half of the children were still making time for Magic spots themselves at least once a week and this was three months after their visit.

Words to discribe my magic spot:

Bumpy, Soil, Twigs, Stinging netalles, Bugs, Trees, Quiets

(7 year old girls)

So these children, given the opportunity, discover they have a yearning, a longing to be a part of nature, the wild – “…wild not in the sense of being out of control, deranged, or barbaric but in the sense that we are terrestrially natural, as a wild flower is wild – native to its particular place, surviving and thriving in its ecosystem without deliberate introduction or manipulation by others…”[8].

Give them the wild, give them silence and the earth speaks:

Waves patter as sit there and relaxe.  When i look around i see birds flying free in the sky and rocks seem to be talking to each other in a kind way.  Although people talk to me i take no notice.  I am too involved in watching and listening to the earth speak.  After listening to the earth i try to listen to my friends, but all i can hear is nature calling me to listen.

(Ten year old boy in Australia)

my-magic-spotGive them the opportunity for intense attentiveness and they experience open mouthed wonder:

Leaning against the rough bark of a gnarled oak tree I could hear the birds go twit. At the opposite end of the field there was an enormous spiky bush. The smell of the flower is beautiful. The flowers were as bright red as a red ruby which is really bright. The thing I thought was that I never knew it could be like this, it is amazing.

(9 year old girl)

After one Magic Spot a ten year old boy (we will call him John) came to show me the picture he had drawn (right). It was a rather childish drawing of a tree taking up the whole of an A5 sheet of paper, rough brown trunk with greenery in a ball over the top. At the bottom of the trunk was a very small stick figure, labelled ‘me’. At the time I was talking to his teacher who took the picture from me, looked at it and said, giving the picture back to him, “Oh John, surely you can do better than this, it’s all out of perspective. Why don’t you try again?” She then left to attend to another child. John, by this time head bowed, looked up at me, with sad, mystified eyes and said, “But I felt so small”. I said, “I know”. He went back into the woods with brighter eyes.

Give them space and they will reflect about themselves and their relationship with other species – the more-than-human-community. Give them time and solitude and they will become mindfully attentive:

I saw this amazing red thing on the back of a leaf, it was long, bright red and had two black legs sticking out from both sides.

A girl 8 years old (who had not written a sentence before but who clearly describes a Platycis minutus beetle!)

Quiet Gardens can give our children places to express their yearning to become who they are: an integral part of the nature. Children loved by the creator who yearns for them to participate in his creation. Children should be a part of the Quiet Garden Movement. Just as we adults discover the need for quiet, for nature, for gardens, so also our children are longing and yearning for the same. What a wonderful opportunity the Quiet Garden Movement provides for us to give this gift to our children.

Quiets

You taught us how to be

motivated by how much you would sell.

We loved what you offered:

your digital war, collaborating

with the entrepreneurs of cash,

carrying your marketing of two for one,

your virtual living through sophisticated screens,

your fantasies of small horizons.

You taught us how to live this way,

we learnt there was no other way.

It is the only way the world works,

you said.

But you never told us about the quiets,

the epiphanies of connection

about discovering the secret

that is only heard in silence.

Why?

It would have made so much difference.[10]


Chris Walton is a Trustee of the Quiet Garden Trust and Chair of the Trustees of The Ringsfield Hall Trust. A more detailed account and reflection on Magic Spots in an article Childhood awaits every person in the International Journal of Children’s Spirituality. For more information feel free to get in touch with Chris Walton at:

If you would like more information about working with children and nature connection explore the Quiet Garden Associate Scheme and join our mailing list – and for information about school and group residentials visit: www.ringfield-hall.co.uk


Notes:

  1. Coles, R. 1990, The Spiritual Life of Children Houghton Mifflin, Massachusetts.
  2. Nabhan, G.P. and Trimble, S. 1994, The Geography of Childhood: Why Children need wild places, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts.
  3. The Institute for Earth Education: eartheducation.org and www.eartheducation.org.uk
  4. Van Matre, S. 1987 Earthkeepers: Four keys for helping young people live in harmony with the earth. Cedar Cove, The Institute for Earth Education. p.69
  5. Chryssavgis, J. (2008) In the Heart of the Desert, Indiana, World Wisdom, Inc
  6. ringsfield-hall.co.uk
  7. All quotes from children have not been corrected for spelling or punctuation. They are ‘raw’ data from: Walton, C. 2010.  …and…between I and Thou: stretching metaxic space for   children as seen from the perspective of my own spiritual journey. PhD, School of Education and Life Long Learning. Norwich, University of East Anglia.
  8. Plotkin, B. Wild Mind, 2013, 54
  9. An incident at Ringsfield EcoActivity Centre recorded in Walton, C …and… (as above)
  10. Walton,C From a mainly unpublished series poems in response to children ‘s articulation of their experience in Magic Spots. See  ‘Counterpoints’ ed Neal,J. Eiinon Books, Machynlleth, pp 58/59 for two further poems

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