Article I wrote for TEACHING PRIMARY

POETRY  AND NATURE

A Wonderful Double Act 

What child doesn’t want to wake up and feel free as the breeze. To go through the day on a whistle and hum. And to conjure up all the magic, mystery, curiosity and wildness they can at the same time. 

Yep. One happy child. Something each of us wants for all those kids in our charge. And what is it that nourishes, creates mystery, promotes curiosity and provides that ultimate whistle and hum? Not hard to guess. Nature. The ever-present universe of creatures, plants and atmosphere here on earth. Pure and simple. 

Now, let’s you and I take a walk outdoors. What do we see? Hear? Maybe there is sun. Or wind. A bird flies by. Some leaves rustle. Of course there are many other things going on. Problem is most of us don’t always catch a lot of the comings and goings of the natural world: the scuttling of bugs, the intricacy of veins on an oak leaf, the shape and colours of ever-shifting clouds or the candied scent of rotting leaves. 

Now ask a child when they are outside. It doesn’t matter if they are outside in a park, on some patch of rough ground in the city or walking through a wild and woolly forest. They are in their ‘outdoor’ world. A world of play. Of running hard. Laughing hard. Looking hard. Tangling with nature. Even if nature is a scraggly weed popping out of asphalt, a patch of smooth lawn or a leaf-covered woodland floor. It doesn’t matter. For wherever outdoor lies, the child is inordinately serious about it all. 

Children perceive and experience the world of nature with a closeness, excitement and clarity of vision we adults often lack or have forgotten. The child will not just point to a worm wriggling in the ground. He reaches down to get closer. To see it. Maybe to pick it up. 

There’s more. Nature encourages imagination. A whipped-up ocean may trigger the possibility for unfettered ideas. A beautiful meadow or sparkling stream could offer a chance to dream big. The quietness of a dark sky perhaps allows us to feel at ease with our own silence. Or maybe the shape of some dead creature floating on a canal at night might unleash hidden thoughts that lurk deep within.

For if we look or listen to something long enough and hard enough the object in view magically . . .transforms. A new identity is born. Rocks become figures, shadows grow real, a single leaf rustle can tell a whole story.

Nature looms large with children’s emotions as well. Biting cold wind, gentle snow falling, a hot sun, a swirling river or the glimmer of moonlight on rooftops; these things we experience on the outside can shape inner experience and emotions to a high degree for a child. 

How does poetry fit in with this romp in nature? 

The first place to start is words. And meaning. And imagination.

Poetry is created through a particular and unexpected musical placement of words. Words which encourage the reader to see and ‘get’ things in a new – almost tickling – way. 

Just imagine for a moment the adult ‘you’ steps outside and sees a dandelion. Most of us see…well…a dandelion. ‘What is that dandelion doing?’ someone asks. ‘It is waving in the breeze,’ you might reply. 

Then ask a child what that dandelion is up to. They might say without blinking twice, ‘It’s  tickling the sky.’ Or, ‘It’s telling the sky a secret.’ 

This personalization of the environment is the beginning of metaphor. The first sparks of poetry. How does the fog come? It comes on little cat feet. 

FOG 

by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes 

on little cat feet 

it sits looking 

over harbor and city 

on silent haunches 

and then moves on 

My point is that the child’s first response to nature is poetic. They endow nature with a special quality. The dandelion is like something else. It is like THEM because the dandelion sees the sky like a person would. SO the child has anthropomorphized something in nature. Nature has given the child the wide-open freedom to see, question, and imagine anything they want. Trees become figures. Those clouds are battling dragons. The wind is telling me a secret. Nature is personal. Things are LIKE something else. And at once we have metaphor. The heart and soul of poetry. 

This rich world, this world of spectacular imagination and poetic play is also the world of language. For stories and poetry are the way information has been shared and passed down through generations. 

Interaction with language is vital for exercising the imagination. When we hear a powerful poem we visualize it. . .feel it. . .and even become it a little. And not only that. We learn to ‘super’ listen. To hear both the words and the silence between them. To see both the trees and the spaces between them. Our experience is enriched until we are magically transformed. And the more exacting and exciting the language, the further and deeper our visions can travel. 

William Wordsworth didn’t just see or describe the daffodils dancing outside. He got inside and became them. Tangled with them. He danced with daffodils in his poems. He understood nature from the inside out. 

‘And then my heart with pleasure fills 

And dances with the daffodils’ 

( from I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, by William Wordsworth) 

A child gathers in the world and learns through the senses. And through play. And what better place to harness senses than that great provider. . .nature. Because when these senses are fed, nurtured and developed they become a bustling exciting storehouse of sense memories. A great learning-pad and enabler of understanding, perception and problem-solving. 

The child is poised at the beginning of a long quest for definition and self-identity. And what better way to fill in the mystery of who you are on the inside, than by looking at and becoming part of the mystery that is nature, outside

With poetry we can, with a brief wave of an enchanted wand, imagine a different world and provide the child with a set of new resources. Resources where an inside-out, upside-down and made-up world is taken seriously and having tea with an elephant is normal. 

Not only does poetry allow us to be who we are, but it gives us the opportunity to be many of the things that we cannot imagine ourselves to be. Listening to a poem, writing a poem, sharing a poem, hearing and feeling the swing and sway of the words, experiencing them, seeing them in our mind’s-eye, grips us. Even if we may not understand every single word, it is all part of a magical and evocative inter-active learning process. 

 

As teachers, librarians, educators, parents, poets and artists, our challenge is to help keep young minds not just listening but involved, curious, questioning and open. 

And what finer way to enable our kids to live and learn free as a breeze with a whistle and hum, than through that wonderful energizing double act of . . . nature and poetry.