The three-year-old’s face fills my mobile screen, her eyebrows puckered into tiny question marks as she squints against the sun and asks almost like a schoolteacher “But, do black kites come to your house?” COVID-19 has ensured that my niece and I can only interact virtually. From our respective terraces in Bangalore and Chennai, we share a natural connection over life in our backyards. My niece now knows that trees in my garden attract different birds from the one she sees. Our terraces and gardens have been our nature learning schools and a source of many mini lessons.
It’s a delightful, friendly competition about the creatures that visit us, and brings us both great joy. Nature is everywhere around us, even in a crack in a wall or a niche in a sidewalk. Sadly, not only is the natural world being destroyed rapidly, the joy of experiencing nature is also becoming lost to us in our everyday lives. In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, child advocacy expert Richard Louv laments our diminishing sense of belonging to the natural world. “Never before in history have children been so plugged in and so out of touch with the natural world”, he notes. Quoting accumulating research, Louv emphasises that experiences in nature critically influence the physiological, emotional, and social development of children.
Forest schools, for instance, try to bridge this gap, offering experiences in nature that encourage curiosity, discovery, and informal learning in the outdoors. They build a sense of belonging in nature and promote a child’s overall wellbeing. Even simple activities like nature sketching or nature journaling can help children learn through play, developing not just observation and analytical skills but also a sense of inquiry.
This was the way I grew up, playing nature detective, cloud-watching, or seed-collecting. I was not yet ten when we moved to Chennai, where my father had hoped for a well-kept garden with pruned trees. He was quickly overruled by the rest of us. The trees grew the way they wanted, the wild took over, and what a joy it was to watch.
One of my earliest memories was of Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki-Tavi coming alive. We had a family of Indian grey mongooses roaming around our backyard for years. They had distinct paths and regular habits — you could almost set your clock by their routines. When high walls and paved apartments took over the greenery in our neighbourhood, the wild visitors disappeared; our little pocket of wilderness was too small. I learnt early that creatures like these need a neighbourhood of gardens that form corridors they can pass through.
My brother and I also had the wonderful experience of a tree’s-eye view of the wild creatures living in our midst. My ex-Army father had the brilliant idea of using our wooden packing crates to build a treehouse, high up in the large badam (Terminalia catappa), ensconced in its sturdy branches and foliage, complete with rope ladder. I will never forget the expression on the face of a squirrel we surprised at eye level in the tree. Its ears twitching in alarm along with frantic tail movements on seeing us so close was at once comical and endearing.
Within weeks, we had our first mystery. First, we noticed scuff marks on the coconut fibre of the rope ladder. Then, entire lengths of rope disappeared, leaving us gingerly skipping the rungs that looked dodgy. Soon, most of the ladder had unravelled, and it was safer to simply climb the tree. That was the end of the rope ladder.
The mystery was soon solved. It was Indian palm squirrel mating season, and they had helped themselves to this sudden abundance of nesting material. My father’s nonchalant response to this development was “Well, it was theirs for the asking, so they took it”. It is only now that I realise the lessons in his often offhand responses: understanding that we are part of a larger ecosystem; that everything is not just ours for the taking; and learning to be empathetic to the needs of other creatures.
On holidays or weekends, we spent entire days up in the treehouse, which offered us vignettes into the behaviour of insects and birds. A pair of curious rufous treepies (Dendrocitta vagabunda), would routinely steal anything shiny from inside the treehouse, from steel spoons to coins and earrings, however well-hidden they were. Watching the pair also meant noticing how most of the other birds, including the crows and parakeets, quickly moved away when the treepies announced their arrival with raucous metallic calls. Soon, we were able to tell when a particular tenor in a bird or squirrel alarm call meant that the garden was buzzing with the news of a snake’s arrival.
What the treehouse did for me, the terrace was doing for my niece. Building in us, early in our childhood, a strong connection with nature and the creatures we cohabit the earth with. The best part of this connection is that you cannot unsee it; once you’ve learnt that nature is everywhere, you keep seeing it almost unconsciously.
In her essay Help Your Child to Wonder, Rachel Carson notes that “for a child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel ”. One does not need to know one bird from another to build a connection with the natural world.
Yet, that knowledge is a bonus. Nature can be a fascinating learning lab, a great way of introducing children to science, technology, engineering, even math. Simple sensory play like using sticks to make shapes or stacking rocks of different sizes can get children to explore concepts like angles, mass, and centre of gravity.
Observing nature also brings complex subjects like geometry to life. A nature detective search can explain the Fibonacci sequence, a number pattern that occurs in frequently in nature, and is showcased, for instance, in the seed head of a sunflower or the spiral of a snail shell.
Children, specially, delight in these details. On my phone, my three-year-old nature buddy excitedly shows me a fallen champa leaf. She is learning fallen-leaf art — creating images of insects she observes, like the delicate green lacewing. She has also rescued four common mormon caterpillars which her parents are helping her house and feed. I can well imagine the wonder she will feel when the butterflies emerge — there are few things as magical as watching this metamorphosis up close and personal.
I wonder what fosters in us this deep connection with the natural world. Access to green spaces? Visits to forests? A parent’s love for nature? Studies have shown that parental connection to nature predilects a child’s connectedness. But that, I feel, is just part of the answer.
As my urban neighbourhood overflows with sounds, I close my eyes, and ask my young partner to close hers too. How many nature sounds can we hear, I wonder? We are both on a sound hunt. Above the din of traffic, I hear the alarm calls of squirrels and the chatter of common tailorbirds. There is also a lively conversation among rose-ringed parakeets up in the badam, part of their mid-day chatter after snacking in the fruiting trees nearby.
The rest of the answer falls in place. I realise building a connection with nature is really about learning to pay attention. And that while children take to this lens easily and naturally, one can in fact begin this practice at any age. The beauty of it is that regardless of where we are, the gift of our attention gifts us back tenfold.