Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Preserving And Restoring Childhood

There is a new nature preserve near my home. I was told by a naturalist working on the project that it will one day be "a world class" place that will attract people from around the globe. Right now, however, it's just a former golf course that's being allowed (with assistance) to revert to something like its former state. 

The same hopeful naturalist told me that he estimates that 80 percent of the current flora is invasive. "We'll never get rid of all of it," he shrugged, "but if we can get it down to 20 percent I'll be happy." He didn't hazard a guess about the percentage of non-native fauna, but there are aspirational signs all around the place telling visitors about the mammals, reptiles, insects, and birds that will one day proliferate here. Of particular note are the coyotes. There was one path forbidden to our dog and me last week because, the signs cautioned, it's coyote pupping season and they don't want anyone disturbing them. Fair enough, although I can't really imagine there are too many momma coyotes calling this place home . . . Yet.

The idea of a nature preserve is to protect plant and animal species whose habitats are vanishing. In most cases, we consider humans to be invasive, but since a secondary purpose of preserves like this one is to educate people about the living things that are displaced by such things as golf courses, accommodations are being made for us. Humans are welcome, but we are expected to stay on the paths, to not disturb the wildlife, to leash our dogs, to avoid rowdiness and to generally behave as visitors who want to be invited back.

As the dog and I followed the ad hoc loop trail, the birdsong definitely sounded louder than it does outside the preserve. A couple of hawks circled overhead, maybe hoping for one of those newborn coyote pups to stray, although the ground squirrels are likely their main targets. There were a lot of butterflies. The naturalist told me that they've decided to keep a couple of the artificial golf course ponds in order to attract water fowl. There were coots, mallards, and shockingly white cranes. The artificial ponds are also home to a population of turtles. I didn't ask the naturalist whether or not they were indigenous, but I doubt it. There are also countless tiny mosquito fish in the ponds. I happen to know that they were introduced to California from elsewhere back in the 1920's to feast on mosquito larvae, so useful, but definitely non-native. 

In other words, this place will never be restored to what it was before the arrival of human development. I imagine that the naturalist's goal of 80 percent native plant species is sort of the overall goal of this or any preserve.

As I consider this place, I feel a kinship to both it and the people who aspire to preserve (or restore) this natural habitat. In many ways, that is my goal as a preschool teacher: to create a preserve for childhood, a natural habitat for authentic play. In most places, children are no longer free to roam their neighborhoods and towns the way we did during what Peter Gray refers to as "the golden age" of childhood play. It was a habitat that was outdoors, relatively unsupervised by adults, with playmates of all ages. We had space to roam, time to explore, invent, and discover. Manufactured toys were rare, but the resources to make our own toys plentiful. In this natural habitat of childhood, there was no top-down curricula, adults didn't fret about the children "falling behind," risk and mess and bickering were managed by the children themselves, and adults were only called for in when absolutely necessary. That is the natural habitat of childhood.

For their part, the adults were too busy living their own lives to hover, to intervene, or to settle petty squabbles. Of course, they kept an eye on things, but they knew that young children thrived in this outdoor habitat of autonomy, community, and time. In many ways, they served the same role that the naturalists do in a preserve.

Over the past half century, the natural habitat of childhood has been eroded away to almost nothing, with only a few small pockets remaining. Most children spend far too much of their early lives indoors, sitting, scheduled, following instructions, and being hovered over by well-intended, but misguided adults. Our play-based preschools may never fully re-create the golden age of childhood play, but maybe, with commitment, we can preserve and restore some of it by becoming places of autonomy, community, and time, instead of obedience, individual achievement, and school readiness. Perhaps we can even aspire to some day become childhood habitats in which 80 percent of the invasive species are eliminated. 

What would happen if we replaced the word school with preserve and teacher with naturalist? I don't know if all, or even many, parents would want their kids spending their days in a childhood preserve, but I sure would.

I've never used that terms before, but when I consider it, I recognize the role I've tried to play in the lives of young children and their families. We preserve other disappearing habitats. How about this one?

"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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