Tuesday, March 19, 2013

We've Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden

By the time we got to Woodstock,
We were half a million strong
And Everywhere there was song and celebration.

And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky,
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation.

We are stardust.
Billion year old carbon.
We are golden...
Caught in the devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.

--Joni Mitchell

Woodstock, U of M Therapy Chicken

Guess what?
Nature is good for you!

You already knew that?
Well, so did I, but now many people are publishing evidence that this is so.  Quantifiable evidence and documentation to prove the benefit of "nature relatedness."

Peaches, Dodge Nature Preschool Therapy Chicken

My tongue is really not in my cheek.  I do value the findings of this growing body of research, but I think it is kind of funny that we humans can't totally sign on to something that we know innately, that we live and breath every day, until we find a way to study and research and publish and prove it officially.  And I don't mean just publish, no, we've got to have our researchers publish in reputable outlets, thank you, reviewed by more doctors and scientists.  The great paradox of researching the human connection to the natural world, is that the hypotheses behind the effort suggests that humans are estranged from the natural world.

Therapy Sunflower, Dodge Nature Center Garden
Well, we might not be as connected to the rest of the world as we would like, but there is no escaping the fact that we have a relationship with the world, good or bad.  We have an impact on the world, and the world has an impact on us.  We humans are just another animal, after all.  And the most exciting evidence to support the idea that we benefit from exposure to nature, really just states an obvious fact about us:  we are made up of the same elements that comprise all life on earth.  That old Joni Mitchell song about "stardust" is true:  we have elements of the space dust, the "billion year old carbon" the Earth evolved from in every cell of our bodies.  This is an inescapable fact.  And we are ruled by the same hormones and chemicals that rule other forms of life on Earth too.  Oxytocin, I recently learned, is manufactured in our brains to bond us to each other and our offspring and to keep the hemispheres of our brains clicking along happily, so that we can eat, sleep, talk, drive a car, go to work and generally function as human beings.  So, sure we "benefit from exposure to nature," but that's because we are nature, and we need nature to literally survive (preschoolers here at Dodge can tell you we need plants to breathe; a hamburger is just another form of sunshine, really).  And we need even more oxytocin and nature to survive happily.

Sunshine = Grass = Ben (or Beef)
You can probably tell that I just returned from a conference.  Yup, I attended, "Nature-Based Therapeutics-- Nature's Way of Healing," at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum last week.  This day-long event was put on by the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing.  Dr. Jean Larson, Head of this department, organized the conference.  Speakers included brain scientist Dr. Paul Scheele,  environmental psychologist, Dr. Lisa Nisbet, and writer, producer and researcher, Meg Olmert.  The conference also included interpretive dance, a film presentation and, believe it or not, improv (The Theater For Public Policy is really, really good and you should go see them at Huge Improv Theater in Minneapolis).  The gestalt of the the whole thing was organized to hammer home one main point:  nature is so good for you that you better get some.  I'm on board with this thesis, and, while I appreciated the more touchy-feely portions of the day's agenda, I really liked the more straight ahead, sciency stuff.

Sunshine = Oxytocin
The brain researcher, Scheele, underlined the basics about our brain composition:  reptilian, mammalian, right and left hemispheres and how they work together.  And of course, people function better if their reptilian and mammalian brains are happy.  And you can guess what makes them happy:  oxytocin.  And we get oxytocin from... Nisbet, the doctor with all the Venn diagrams and bar graphs, presented her evidence that Canadians, at least, are happier when they walk outside than when they walk inside or through a "built environment."  Nature relatedness correlates to happiness.  And the happier brain is the brain with higher levels of...  oxytocin.  AND, the oxytocin hormone promotes bonding, in fact, it promotes pair bonding with other people and animals, and with nature itself.  Olmert, who has just published a book on the importance and evolution of inter-species relationships, Made for Each Other, sent the ball out of the park:  you not only get oxytocin from a hot bath, from wine, from chocolate, from human physical contact, you get it from petting pets and exposure to nature.  And since oxytocin promotes bonding, it seals and promotes your relationship to animals and nature.  Even looking at a picture of "nature" raises your brain's oxytocin levels and in turn increases your relatedness to nature-- Olmert had the brain scans to prove it.

Horticultural Therapy
I may have felt a little jaded during the interpretive dance, but I think the research and the message is powerful.  Your brain on nature isn't just happy, its chemistry is more balanced, allowing you to be a more productive and effective human being.  You are also more likely to take care of nature, because you are bonding with it, just as a mother bonds with her newborn child.  Olmert, who is the Director of Research and Development for Warrior Canine Connection, which trains veterans to train dogs for therapy, reports that the vets in her program no longer need the drug cocktail regimen prescribed for their PTSD.  The vets' relationship with the dogs they work with, the meaningful work they and the dogs carry out for other patients, and the resulting oxytocin bump in their brains is making these drugs obsolete (Olmert joked that we might "find her in the river some day," because these findings are not what "Big Pharma wants to hear").  Olmert's message is that the necessity of maintaining our connection to the natural world cannot be over-stated.  She asserts that, because we are in danger of losing our natural, necessary connection to the rest of the world, by virtue of the way most of us need to live our lives in the modern era, we can maintain a measure of health and happiness and connectedness through at least a relationship with domesticated animals, and domesticated plants too.  To quote Mitchell, "We've got to get ourselves back to the garden."  The world is complicated and its environmental problems are large, but small steps (and pets) taken every day can make a big difference in the quality of our lives, and our brains.

We are golden
So now you can tell your boss that she should let you bring your dog to work.  Your brain chemistry will be better and you will be more productive, and you'll be more likely to recycle!  Your brain on dogs = :).  And now you know why Dodge preschoolers are such highly effective people for their age!  Someone should come and take pictures of our brains; they must be awash in oxytocin!  Your brain on nature = :)

This post is dedicated to Maisy, the dog who never had to prove the value of inter-species relationships.   Neither wine, nor chocolate will ever compare.

Further reading:
Made For Each Other:  The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond by Meg Olmert
Your Brain on Nature by Eva Selhub
Cleo:  The Cat Who Mended a Family by Helen Brown

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Long View

This time, I'm taking you to the Oak Room here at Dodge Nature Preschool.

Interestingly, the Oak Room has qualities similar to its namesake tree:  archetypal, timeless, classic, reliable, durable.  There is even a metaphor to be found in the pattern of the oak leaf.

The lobes of the leaf are not always entirely uniform, but they cannot be mistaken for any other tree.  The Oak Room has a certain quality, a combination of order and aesthetics that is unmistakable.

The environment in the Oak Room is very purposeful.  It all "works."  One gets the impression that objects and materials have been chosen carefully and arranged thoughtfully.  Objects appear to be in the right place, creating a pleasing fit, and suggesting their purpose right away.  The visitor sees this in the arrangement of kid art work, of lovely decorations and of the materials children are invited to use.  It is easy to figure out what things are and what they should be used for.  Creating a classroom that is both visually and physically pleasing as well as useful, is difficult, to the point of being an art.

A certain alchemy is achieved by the four teachers working in the Oak Room.  How it is achieved is rather mysterious, but it must have something to do with the teachers who work in Oak, and design its environment.

I have had the great privilege of teaching alongside three of the four teachers in Oak (some day, I'll get to teach with Brenda).  All four of them are gifted teachers with skills as solid as oak.  They also have very certain styles.  Not one of them is really like the other.

Melanie Grue lends a certain ironic and current flair to the mix.  Although children and adults find Melanie very reliable, she also brings the delightfully unexpected and surprising into any room she teaches in, usually via music and stories.  Walk into her classroom, and the children she teaches will most certainly have a favorite Calef Brown song.  They might know that crazy "Chicken Song" too.  They will most certainly have read, "A Good Day," and maybe, "Jenny and the Cat Club."  There is a combination of irony and innocence at work with Melanie; she might beat box to some "Octopus Slacks" song and also delight in a child's delight of a butterfly.

Kris Rollwagen is simply a legend; it is true, she teaches here at Dodge, with us.  Are we lucky or what?  Kris is a kids-come-first teacher.  A laser beam focus on children and the affairs of their hearts is second, or perhaps first nature to Kris.  She has enough energy to power Dodge on her own, and sometimes it seems like she does.  Children seem to know that they (and their grown-ups) can stand on her shoulders.  Kris has shepherded many families through the process of starting school and gaining confidence.  Children and adults alike look to Kris for guidance and security.  Many times I have sought her out for advice, and perspective.  Kids know that Kris will read Leo Leoni and William Steig and Patricia Polacco to you.  Kris will take you over the river, through the woods and then some, and all at a jaunty clip.  Everybody knows, when you cry, Kris will give you the strongest, fiercest hug.  With Kris around, you don't have to worry.

If Lora Serafini hadn't married her husband she might have married a dog (no offense, Paul).  And (Lora will understand this completely), if Lora wasn't Lora, she'd be a dog.  As a teacher and a friend, Lora is just as loyal as man's best friend.  She talks straight to the kids and honors them by not beating around the bush.  I've seen her share joy and pain with kids, just like you hope your best friend would.  Although she might try to say something smart about this, I know nothing pleases Lora more than sharing a laugh and a joke with a child.  Or a dog.  Lora brings a keen and critical design eye to the classroom, and some really great art prints.  She is a big advocate for restraint, functionality and simplicity in decoration.  If she could have, she would have worn Keens with her wedding gown.  Just like a dog, she likes to walk and play the most.

While I haven't yet taught alongside Brenda, I've learned a lot just by teaching next door to her.  She is fastidious.  Beyond fastidious.  Extremely organized, and yet very creative.  You can't say that many artists are super organized, but Brenda is.  She has a talent for inviting participation in big, messy, multi-media art-making extravaganzas and finding a way to channel kid energy around these events into real beauty, with a purpose.  Kids have great big deep experiences with Brenda, but the end result is often beautiful too.  Brenda is famous for creating very thoughtful visual displays and organizing classroom documentation for maximum impact.  Brenda also contributes her own art work to the classroom walls.

Somehow, these four amazing people have managed to create a cohesive whole that communicates a cozy hipness.  I imagine that in many ways the room feels very familiar, very much like home to most Oak students.

When you walk into the Oak Room, you get a long view.  You can see the length of the entire room.  For better or worse, the childrens' cubbies form a gauntlet of sorts that the visitor must run in order to gain access.  I think the layout itself creates a sense of protection, and privacy.  Kids coming in can see what they are getting in to, they have a sense of the lay of the land, and anticipate play.  They also must have a nice sense of transition as they figuratively and literally change hats before entering and exiting school.  This is true of all of our rooms to a certain extent, but nowhere is it more physically apparent than in the design of the Oak Room.  Standing in the doorway, one gets an excellent sense of how the room works and flows.  The long view is a nice metaphor for the way the teachers have set up this room.  Items and activities seem chosen for the long view.

A collection of shells and books about shells perch on the shelf above building blocks, at eye level.  The shells invite children to touch them and explore them.  The architecture of the shells invites comparison to the architecture that the children create with the blocks.

A gorgeous tank of Minnesota fish sparkles in the sun near a window (thanks to ichthyologist and Board President, Peter Garretson's), and just around the corner is the water table, full of fish to play with.  A funky little display sports a collection of available costume jewelry alongside thought-provoking pictures of people all over the world wearing jewelry.

A Chinese Export lamp lights the cushy couch for reading.  Task buckets are labelled.  Interesting art is framed on the walls.  Baskets are just the right size for the stuff they house.

Textures delight and surprise.  All rough edges seem to be smoothed out.  Mirrors reflect light and the shape of things.  Plants sit in conversation with objects and art.  All of this creates the "the long view," and gives us that sense of perspective we all desire, no matter how old we are.