When I was a young man my father bought be a collection of poems by Robert Frost. One of my favorites remains his careful consideration of "Birches". I will not attempt an analysis of the poem, but for me it was justification that my love of tree climbing was shared by one as interesting as Robert Frost. I think of its last line often. It is, "One could do worse than be a swinger of birches." I wondered then and still wonder now to what extent the creativity and brilliance of a man like Robert Frost can be traced to his experience with the world. Did he spend his boyhood climbing birches? How did my boyhood spent climbing oaks influence me?
A few days ago I was in a nearby park taking pictures of my three young children climbing a maple. The leaves were a brilliant gold, the sun was shining, and all three children were giggling as they shared in the experience together. It was a perfect moment. It was perfect until a woman approached me and told me that I should not allow my children to climb the trees. I must have looked surprised by her comment because she went on to explain in detail to me that my children were destroying nature by damaging the bark on the maple. My first thought was to counter with the physiology of trees and bark, but I resisted and simply thanked her for her concern.
Was she correct in her assessment that my children might have a negative impact on that tree? Perhaps, but how do we assess environmental impact? Mustn't we permit our children to fall in love with the world in which they live before we ask them to work with us to protect it?
What we feel often informs what we know. Rachel Carson taught in her "Sense of Wonder" that it is far better to offer children experiences in nature than it is to teach them anything about it. She went on to claim that after their passion has been awakened, they will choose to learn about nature all on their own. I share her belief.
I have recently proposed a new curricular program at the university where I work that is based on this principle. It is called "The GreenHouse" and involves a four year cohort experience centered on project-based sustainability education. The intent is not so much to dictate specifically what the students know, but to permit an opportunity for them to experience sustainable living and feel of its worth. As a professor, I am certainly interested in what they know, but my hope is that having experienced what it means to engage in sustainability work, they will engage in their major curriculum with a deeper sense of commitment, care, and concern. I believe what they feel will inform what they choose to know. I have recently written up a detailed description of the proposal if you happen to be interested.
There is a lot I don't know about teaching and parenting, but I do know that our experience with the world is far more meaningful as an educational exercise than what we read about it or happen to hear about it in a classroom. I sincerely hope our children and their children will have the opportunity to grow up "swingers of birches."
Vincent M. Smith - PhD