Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tornado Alley

A couple of days ago, a kid in our "big kid class" of campers, one of the five and six-year-olds said, "I know a place!  Tornado Alley!  I know Tornado Alley!"  Turns out that this class of ours loves geography and so we embarked on a rather wide-ranging and existential class discussion of "places we know."  "Heaven," "Zanzibar," "Outer Space," and "Duluth" also made "The List."  But it is Tornado Alley that sticks with me.

Here at the Preschool, we spend a lot of time and energy thinking about and talking about coping skills like resilience, flexibility and patience.  We teachers pretty much agree that Nature (with a capital "N"), is a very good life skills coach.  Change of any kind usually presents a learning opportunity for young children, often challenging them to call upon new coping skills.  For young people, change often looks like a transition:  coming to school for the first time, separating from a care taker (if only for a few hours), putting on shoes or simply stopping what one is doing and going to the bathroom (preferably in a toilet).

Nature is full of transitions too.  Out on the trail, children not only observe change all around them-- a tree falls, an animal dies, an apple grows-- they must also cope with shifting terrain, obstacles and surprises.  At Dodge, kids learn to scramble over the fallen tree, to dig a grave for a classroom pet or to reach for a ripe apple.  Nature provides curriculum and we teachers simply help implement that curriculum.

Most of the time, challenges in Nature are manageable, but teachers do often think about how to avoid the toughest realities presented by the world around us.  We realize that our curriculum should be challenging, and also age-appropriate.  By and large, we agree that the hard reality of harvesting animals for food is best left as an abstraction when children are young:  "hamburgers come from cows."  That's Dodge Nature Preschool culture.  Now, young Inuit children might be happy to find the head of a narwhal on their kitchen floor, and certainly other rural Americans also have a closer relationship to their food.  My husband grew up slaughtering chickens.  At Dodge, we walk a finer line with our youngest charges, leaving it to families to sort out the hardest questions as they see fit.  Generally though, we adults and teachers feel that we can sort of control these kinds of questions or challenges.  But what happens when we feel like we can't control challenges?

Teachers try to keep at the front of our minds the notion that our students are developing and changing every day.  We accept change as a definition of childhood and actually celebrate it.  Sometimes life presents us with change that is unwelcome, and not so positive:  illness, dissolution or disaster.  Sometimes just a glancing blow from any of these vagaries brings home the notion that we are not in control.  A window opens on the human condition and we see the world through different eyes.   Days ago, my family's summer property was damaged by a tornado.  While severe weather is no stranger to us in Minnesota, the storm and its wreckage still came as a surprise, if not a shock.  I felt a little like I did when my little brother was diagnosed with a lifetime disease; I felt really vulnerable, like I could sympathize with that ant on the sidewalk, the one we urge preschoolers not to step on.

After spending a weekend collecting and moving debris, calling insurance people and trying, in vain, to get a tarp on a roof, we returned to our home in Lakeville to find that a dear, giant, old willow had succumbed to a second round of storms; the tremendous tree lay uprooted and smashed across two back yards.  I am not proud to relate my reaction to this new development:  a torrent of unpleasant vocabulary threatened to "blue" the air, but my wise husband appeared at my elbow.  "Be careful," he warned, "we're teaching them how to cope with change."  He was speaking of our nine-year-old twins who were indeed all eyes and ears.  Days later, when our car broke down in the extreme heat  (after surveying tornado damage with insurance assessors!), I still wanted to scream, throw my hands in the air or run and hide from forces beyond my control, but I recalled my husband's advice and literally bit my tongue.  While we may not be able to stop bad things from happening, we can try to control our response to them.  I can't blame my parents for my low coping skills, but I really do believe that it is in our best interest, as care takers, to try to teach the next generation to face adversity with patience, and flexibility.

I do not feel that it is age-appropriate to discuss the vagaries of climate change with young children, but I think that helping them develop coping skills now will give them the ability to tackle what may be the biggest challenge in their collective future.  It takes resilience to solve the problems and mitigate the results of rising temperatures, increasingly severe weather, loss of habitat and threatened air and water quality.  Behind all of our fabulous adventures here at Dodge Nature Center, is a love of the world we share and a conviction to promote stewardship and respect for the planet.  The next time you see a kid try to say, "good-bye," to pee on the potty, to leap the widest part of the stream, to lift the heaviest rock, battle thorns for the best berry or struggle to climb even higher, think,  "I'm seeing the future."