On the winding trails the ground is covered with red and yellow maple tree leaves. These are ininaatigobagaa, the children and adults in our forest nature program have learned, in the Ojibwe language.
In the Humber Valley in the northwest end of Toronto, children examine and learn about the red oak acorns (mitigomin) that are not buried by the eastern grey squirrels (misagidamoo) and will grow into trees and feed future generations of squirrels. They are learning about the language of nature of that area.
Humber’s nature-based program is located on 250 acres of forest, meadows, wetlands and ponds, a place called Adoobiigok, known as “Place of the Black Alders” in the Michi Saagiig language. Uniquely situated along the Humber River watershed, it historically provided an integral connection for Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Wendat peoples between the Ontario lakeshore and the Lake Simcoe/Georgian Bay regions.
But mitigomin aren’t only disappearing from the ground. Writer Robert McFarlane and illustrator Jackie Morris created the book The Lost Words to draw attention to English-language words pertaining to nature and the ecosystems we know (heron, moss, willows, dandelion) that were removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary.
Oxford University Press claimed the words were not being used by children. It introduced words like blog, broadband, attachment and voicemail.
The book is a lyrical protest against the loss of sentient nature words, digitalized play and childhoods, and a call to wonder for both children and adults.
With Indigenous partners
Canada has a history of making Indigenous words and languages disappear. I work both as faculty in the early childhood education program at the Humber Arboretum and as a researcher exploring how early childhood programs can develop relationships with Indigenous communities and knowledges.
With gratitude for the generosity of Indigenous Elders and colleagues who share with our children’s forest nature program, we are dedicated to ensuring nature — and an awareness of Indigenous people and knowledges — are part of children’s experiences. We are learning to understand the relationship between Indigenous knowledge and ecosystems.
We learn new words and how language is a key transmitter of Indigenous knowledge and culture. This is particularly timely in the International Year of Indigenous Languages, dedicated to preserving languages, cultures and knowledge systems.
Revitalizing words and knowledge
A recent study of 1,000 children aged five to 16, living in the United Kingdom, found that more than 80 per cent of children could not identify a bumblebee, dandelions were unknown to 42 per cent and 23 per cent could not recognize a robin.
A 2018 survey conducted for the Nature Conservancy of Canada with Ipsos Public Affairs found that nine out of 10 Canadians are happier in nature and benefit from being in nature, yet 66 per cent increasingly spend more time indoors than in their youth. They say this is because of busy schedules and barriers such as rain, snow and insects.
In response to growing awareness of the environmental crisis in recent decades, Euro-western early learning and education is being challenged to expand a long-standing approach to nature as separate from culture. In Canadian early childhood education and care settings, rigid schedules and environments have been emphasized over Earth-centred worldviews characterized by reciprocal relationships with nature.
My research and our program explores how Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators can create ethical partnerships and space where Indigenous ways of knowing, doing and being shape what we do.
Children share the forest and meadows with chickadees, woodpeckers and wrens, which are in steep decline.
Through multi-sensory explorations, observations and wondering, in all seasons and weather, we not only learn the names of plants, animals and creatures, we learn their stories.
Sacred Tobacco (Asayma) harvested from the Indigenous medicine garden is offered to the towering sugar maple trees that drip sap into metal pails. We ask for permission before tasting the clear maple water — aninaatig'waboo — and give thanks for Elder James Dumont’s teaching about the Maple Tree story and the sweet syrup to come.
Children and adults in our nature program return to known places.
When we walk through the forest, we notice what is, what has changed and wonder what may become. We are attuning ourselves to the rhythms around us. These daily experiences are part of what we call “slow play”: together we live in reciprocal relationships with other animals, plants, water and rocks.
We wonder how the sap will run during the day when nights have not been cold enough. In learning to leave acorns and pine cones in their natural habitats, we imagine future oak and pine trees. We witness the cycle of threatened monarch butterflies that journey to Mexico from the arboretum.
In the familiar, we also experience the unknown, perhaps key to thinking creatively, adapting to change and empowering resilience.
Children map their own experiences of nature: how bees make honey, the smell of winter, deer prints in the snow, the adventures of blue-green insects. We learn that dandelion flowers are an early source of nectar for pollinating wild bees and not to pick them. At home, children successfully protest parental attempts to mow the lawn, instructing that dandelions are the first juice for the bees.
Benefits outweigh risks
They see increasing confidence and resilience through problem-solving and embracing new challenges. The benefits they see include nurturing compassion and care for other living creatures and developing a respect for nature through awareness of Indigenous cultures, communities and knowledges.
Earth-centered programs that integrate education and environment goals, and that seek to build ethical partnerships with Indigenous communities, have an important role today.
They could help inform climate change goals such as learning about mitigating human impact on the land and becoming sensitized to caring for and protecting biodiversity.
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