Idie Benjamin and Dale Cooperman
The child of a certain rabbi used to wander in the woods. At first his father let him wander, but over time he became concerned. The woods were dangerous. The father did not know what lurked there. He decided to discuss the matter with his child. One day he took him aside and said, “You know, I have noticed that each day you walk into the woods. I wonder why you go there?” The boy said to his father, “I go there to find God.” “That is a very good thing,” the father replied gently. “I am glad you are searching for God. But, my child, don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?” “Yes,” the boy answered, “but I’m not.” (A Hasidic story)
Outside, much of the Western Hemisphere is in the throes of winter, and often we allow the cold to keep children from going outside. Then Tu B’Shvat arrives to remind us that it is not Jewish to stay inside.
Long ago, the Rabbis taught that trees are so important that Jews are not supposed to live in a city that does not have them. Once, most Jews were farmers. Their lives and Jewish holidays were connected to the land and its rhythms. For our ancestors, the focus was the land. They knew firsthand the importance of caring for the world. Their close connection to nature was the source of our psalms that speak of nature with majestic language and beautiful images.
Nature is often a source of our celebrations. At the Seder, we eat green vegetables to remind us of spring. We celebrate the holiday of Sukkot by sitting outside in our sukkot for eight days, surrounded by the fruits of the harvest. Is it any wonder that the holiday is called zman simhatainu, the time of our happiness?
Tu B’Shvat has become a Jewish Earth Day, a time to focus on the earth that God gave us and how better to care for our world. It is a time for us to celebrate the beauty of God’s earth. It is also an opportunity to show our children that caring for the environment is a basic tenet of Judaism.
But in many classrooms, that caring and learning is too often happening inside with paper trees and pink tissue paper blossoms. We even know of schools where there is no interaction with a real tree while the children “learn” about Tu B’Shvat. Richard Louv does not approve. And he is right.
Richard Louv is the author of Last Child in the Woods in which he coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” He believes that there are serious, long term effects from children spending so little time in nature including challenges like ADHD. Parents and teachers are so worried about children’s safety that they keep children inside in safe, structured play environments, or in organized sports instead of allowing them to explore in woods and fields.
In nature, children (and we) can relax and slow down. Children have focus and lengthen their attention spans. They use their senses to explore. They learn to appreciate their world and the gift of creation. They will develop a sense of wonder and respect (Louv) for the natural world.
Contact with nature “may be as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep” (Tim Gill “Let our children roam free”). In September 2011, ScienceDaily reported on a study that appeared in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. “A study of more than 400 children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has found a link between the children’s routine play settings and the severity of their symptoms….Those who regularly play in natural outdoor settings (with lots of green grass and trees, for example) have milder ADHD symptoms than those who play indoors or in man made, outdoor environments…The association holds even when the researchers controlled for income and other variables.” And there is research that indicates that with increased time in natural environments young learners all show improvement in academic skills and subjects.
Many early childhood centers now have an outdoor classroom and/or garden where children get to spend unstructured time outside exploring in a please-touch natural environment. They dig in the soil, plant seeds, touch plants, and reap the fruits of their labors. They climb on logs and find bugs under rocks. They sit under trees and feel the grass and the earth. They get dirty and love it. These sensory experiences enrich their lives and their souls.
These are model programs for us all. Together with the children, we need to explore and discover the nature in our surroundings. Go outside and allow our senses to take in and appreciate all the gifts we have been given. The richness of nature is at our fingertips, as is the opportunity to help the children form a deep connection with those who came before them, and to their own Jewish identity.
Tu B’Shvat reminds us that meaningful learning can come from an awareness of trees, nature, and caring for our environment. But it is only one day of year. What experiences in the natural world are our children having the other 364?
So, let’s consider Tu B’Shvat as our annual reminder that we need to be outside and not just outside on our playgrounds. We need to be bringing children to nature and nature to children. Tu B’Shvat is both relevant and timely. It is more than a time for a birthday party. It is a reminder that it is not Jewish to stay inside.
Louv, Richard. (2011) The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature- Deficit Disorder.
Louv, Richard. (2005) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
Louv, Richard, Web of Life: Weaving the Values That Sustain Us.
Roseman, Nancy, “Teaching and Learning about the Natural World – Learning to Love the Earth and Each Other,” NAEYC, 2008