What is the point of giving up a Saturday and inviting students to join me on an island with their parents to build gnome homes?
It sounds crazy, right? It sounds like something that a lovable old coot with nothing better to do with her life might do. In some ways that’s true. What better thing is there to do on a Saturday afternoon than to be outside in nature with my favorite people? There are scholars, however, who see the method in my madness. Let me introduce you to one.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods asserts that children who do not engage with nature develop a series of deficits. He says that these children’s senses diminish. They have difficulties with attention. They are more often both physically and emotionally ill.
Louv goes on to say that “An environment-based education movement–at all levels of education–will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”
I try my best to take my students through that portal into that wider world during the school year. I take them outside to draw the plants, to draw horses, to draw dogs, to be in the middle of nature, and what I hear from many of them over and over again is fear.
Many of my students are scared to be outside.
They are scared of insects, of grass stains, of dirt on their clothes, of ants, of the itch from the grass. They are uncomfortable in the heat, in the cold, if its humid, if its dry. They find it too bright, they find the wind upsetting.
When I was little, I hated coming back inside from the park, or the river. I studied the bugs in my playtime, I learned from the leaves outside. By observing and sitting with nature, observing the anatomy of insects and small mammals, I became a better artist.
What does it mean for my students’ future if the great outdoors are a place of terror and not of wonder? What will the green of the earth become if this generation doesn’t learn to value it in all its complexity?
What does it mean for my students’ future in art if the simplest place to observe creatures and environments is so frightening that they won’t venture out into it?
The Gnome Home Build on Belle Isle in Richmond Virginia is a way to make nature more inviting. When friendly 6 inch people invite you into the woods under the safe care of your parents to build them a home which they don’t yet have, you feel called there. You feel safe there.
When parents or teachers sit down and engage with young children in the dirt, in the grass, in the woods, next to bugs, that environment shifts forever in the eyes of those children.
When parents or teachers put their hands on sticks and leaves and encourage their children to do the same, then children learn that nature is a good and a safe place. They learn that the adults in their lives value it, and are not afraid of it.
If a teacher from your own school played pretend with you for a whole Saturday and documented your discoveries, what might that have done for your sense of wonder? I invite you now out into the woods. There are some very cold gnomes out there who need houses.
Don’t be afraid.
There is no wrong way to do it.