In elementary school, I, along with millions of other children before and after me, loved Maurice Sendak’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are. ” The story is a short text with illustrations of the little boy Max in his wolf costume, making too much mischief at home. As punishment, he is sent to his room, which transforms into a jungle. Max’s ensuing play with beasts and wild things gives him opportunity to explore and take risks in the forest.
Perhaps we need to give our children more time with the wild things.
As parents, my husband and I work to get our family in nature, communing with critters. Apparently our instincts are good. In 1984, a biologist named E. O. Wilson introduced the concept of “biophilia,” the innate attraction humans have for other living creatures. In education circles, “biocentric” teaching places children outdoors for their classrooms.
Germany has more than 1,500 “forest kindergartens” where young children spend most of their days out in the wilderness. Sticks, rocks, leaves and creatures stimulate their imagination, and they don’t require AAA batteries. If young ones are curious Maxes who flock to living creatures simply because they exist, what more can we do to increase a child’s curiosity and empathy?
We’ve created a monarch butterfly garden by setting aside a plot in the yard to grow milkweed plants that attract monarch larvae. When the tiny creatures appear on leaves, we snip the leaves and place them in a critter keeper, trimming and feeding them more leaves while they get fat and happy. Our boys know how to birth a monarch. They have also learned that monarchs are struggling with declining habitat. In helping, they feel purposeful.
Our boys also love bugs. Recently, we let Bob the World’s Largest Grub spend time in a safe pot in some deep, rich earth. We observed his ribbed, fat, white self. He’d been turned over by a neighbor’s shovel. Bob would have made a feast for the chirping robin, who was pulling out her good china platter, so we tucked him under the pine needles and wished him metamorphosis.
We have domestic animals, including fish, two cats and three dogs, until recently. One evening, our sweet, English Cocker became suddenly and seriously ill. She had been a therapy dog who served school children by listening to them read and visited older folks in nursing care facilities. After a consultation with the emergency vet, it became clear she wasn’t coming home. Each boy reacted to the news in his own way. One didn’t come to the clinic, but stayed with a neighbor. One stayed out of the exam room. One cried as the drug was given to our dog. One sobbed afterward in waves. Attachment and caregiving can hurt, and that’s another important lesson about valuing life.
Wild things are everywhere, from the backyard to wonderful learning centers like the Little Rock Zoo, Heifer International’s Urban Farm, city parks or the crazy exhibit, Xtreme Bugs, at the Clinton Library. Let your child’s world become a jungle.