Sunday, November 4, 2007

Climbing Trees is Boring

When I was little, we used to climb trees. That was not fifteen years ago. When was the last time you saw a child climb a tree?

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues that American kids may have everything, but they are tremendously deprived. They suffer from what he deftly calls Nature-Deficit Disorder. Not only do they not know how to appreciate nature, relish it, explore it—they don’t even realize it’s there.

The evening of Halloween, I realized there were kids in my neighborhood. Lured out of their homes by promises of entertainment and sugar, I saw them in their costumes. I drive down my street everyday, at all times of the day, and I never see kids in the yards. There are swing sets and sandboxes, bicycles in the garages, lush backyards, but no kids.

Stimulated, indoors, overfed, entertained, overscheduled, and told how to play, children are losing their childhood. Many children, Louv says, cannot identify a single plant or bird. Few have ever held an earthworm, listened closely to a bird call, or observed animals outside of a zoo. What they are missing out on, what only contemplation of Allah’s creation around them can teach them, is humility. Wonder. Knowledge.

The Quran is crystal clear on the role of contemplation, thought, and observation of nature as a path to connecting with the Creator: “Do they not look at the camels, how they are created? And at the sky, how it is raised high? And at the mountains, how they are fixed firm? And at the earth, how it is spread out? Therefore remind, for you are only a reminder.”

Children are born with an overpowering sense of curiosity and desire to learn about everything around them. For young children, you only have to let them free and they will pick up sticks, squat in the dirt and watch the ants, and point in delight at birds flying overhead. For older children who are accustomed to being electronically entertained, this intrinsic curiosity and at-home feeling in nature must be awakened and revived. Somehow, in the process of growing up in the modern world, that creativity and curiosity is squashed. In the San Jose Children’s Museum, there was a quote on the walls that resounded with me, minus the part about the good fairy, “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”

I have always noticed, during our visits to area parks, out-of-the-way of the typical touristy places, that the people we find there are peaceful, friendly, and plain nice. The hikers we pass walk in silence for miles, no ipods or stereos within miles, watching in wonder, thinking. Their kids sit by a lake, waiting for the fish to bite, comfortable with silence and the buzzing of dragonflies. Maybe a better place to be present as Muslims and meet people is in such places, in addition to the city corners, lecture halls, and subway stops.

The finest education for a child is tiny plot of wilderness, be it in a backyard, a balcony, or a forest. You do not need to live in the Rocky Mountains. Find a creek where he can turn over rocks and watch what scurries from underneath. Place a pot of soil that she can tend and touch and feel. Let them run barefoot and free in the grass, splash in puddles. Forget the mud and dirt and bugs—that’s what bathtubs are for.

Show them the everyday animals and plants around them so they can study and watch in awe. Teach them to learn something then observe and build off that knowledge. In order to savor the experience of nature, the child learns to enjoy silence, be comfortable with solitude, and create activities for herself.

All of the insightful, exceptional people I know, whether intellectuals or activists, professors or mothers, have a fascination with something, a passion for knowledge and exploration. It is not all leaves and bugs and seashells—some wonder at the stars, at the layered worlds underneath the earth’s crust, at subatomic forces, at the development of a child’s mind. I’m not talking about passing or unexplored interests, all of us have those. What I mean is a deep fascination that consumes their thoughts, one that they could spend hours reading about or contemplating—a sense of wonder and awe towards creation that leads them, from deep within their souls, to worship the Creator. It is those little things, the leaves and bugs and seashells, that first spark curiosity and humility, which lead to great hearts and great character.

I worry for the kids of active Islamic families. Rightly but wholly absorbed with preserving their faith in their children, or sometimes too busy for holistic development of a child’s mind, they are unaware of the necessity of connecting children with nature, of developing hobbies, the essential role of outdoor exploration and free play. I see a lot of Muslim kids with stunted creativity or an inability to entertain themselves. I would argue, as important as teaching children about the prophets or the companions, is to teach them to marvel at the mountains, to identify plant species, and wonder about the language of the bees.

Faced with a field of toads, wagons to pull, shovels and buckets, and trees to climb, they can only say, “This is so boring." And sit on the curbside and playing portable video games.

Nothing impresses them and nothing sparks a drive to learn more. Everything in their surrounding entertains them and stimulates them, even those who read are increasingly fed the Harry-Potter genre that is high on instant humor and leaves little to the imagination. They must only remain passive to enjoy the fruits.

Not that the average American kid is any better off. But I expect more of Muslims, who have Islam to teach them what is most in harmony with natural human constitution. If we lose this connection to the earth and do not foster in our kids an attachment to Allah’s creation, I fear we will lose a crucial aspect of the Islamic personality.

Where do we come in as parents? I often fall short of immersing my children in nature, because sometimes the overwhelming task of parenthood leaves little room for creativity. Rachel Carson said, and this gives me motivation, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

We must model a connection to nature and revive our own interest in aspects of nature, if we are to pass it on to our kids. Think about it--really, would you rather spend your day cruising shopping aisles or sitting on a bedsheet in a park while your children romp, eat fresh cucumbers, and watch the clouds. In the process of slowing down and reconnecting, we may just find our faith rejuvenated. What a wonderful gift to pass on to our children: a lifelong passion, a healthy pastime, and the way to a place, just outside their back doors, where they can always reconnect with their Creator.

So let's take our kids and go climb a tree!


Fatima said...

Beautifully written and stated, ya Maha. It takes patience and energy to do all a parent should!

Leenah said...

i love you maha! you're an amazing & admirable writer mashaAllah!!