Connecting Children With Nature Through Art

Laurent, doing what ever boys do!

As my kids were growing up, I encouraged them to roam free close to our home, where they had access to 600 acres of untouched nature full of treasures waiting to be discovered. Birds defending their nesting territory high in the trees, frogs basking in the pounds, and creeping bugs scurrying through the long grasses endlessly fascinated those little boys. They collected wasps’ nests, mushrooms, sticks and stones, and played in the mud pit knowing they would have to be washed in cold water with the garden hose once they got back home.

At the time, I did realize that most of my neighbours’ children weren’t permitted to ‘free range’. Many young parents collectively decided that outdoors was out-of-bounds. They had become convinced that nature was a risky place. But because my most precious childhood memories have to do with being in nature without adult supervision, I know deep in my soul that this generation of children is being deprived of one of childhood’s greatest pleasures. And that is just a shame.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder, meaning, according to Wikipedia, “…that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioural problems.” 

Joshua, always climbing!

Louv affirms, “Today’s children now know more about the wildlife of the Amazon rainforest than they do about their own backyard.” He argues that “… sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally scared children straight out of the woods and fields, while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favours ‘safe’ regimented sports over imaginative play.”

Statistics show that children now spend, on average, less than 30 minutes outdoors after their school days. This even though spending more time outside, ideally in nature, improves kids’ physical and psychological health, and makes them more environmentally conscientious. In a world where humankind is endangering more and more species with its lack of care for the environment and its constant pressure on natural resources, I believe we all have a responsibility to introduce children to what we are at risk of losing. How can we protect and care for nature if we have no idea what lives around us? If we never feel the joy and wonder of interacting with nature, won’t we forget that we’re an integral part of nature, not separate from it, not superior to it? Our specie, as all others, is dependant upon the natural world, so it’s imperative that we respect it and develop a deeper love for it.

My boys are all grown up now but, sadly, many of my teenage art students are still not permitted to walk by themselves on the paths by the creek in my community, let alone to wonder around in the forest.

When several of those students asked whether I’d organise a summer art camp for them, I resisted the idea at first.   Why? Well, I suppose I have to admit that I jealously guard those precious summer weeks. We have so few of them here in Canada and I cherish the time I spend outside, creating my art and connecting with nature. But then, three years ago, I finally got excited about its potential.

Photo credit Jean Wallace

The idea of a Summer Nature Art Camp made me happy! I could take kids out into those 600 acres and encourage them to explore and daydream and create art. It was an idea definitely worth a couple of precious summer weeks. I’d still get to be outside and do art. But for those two weeks I could share the experience with kids who, for the most part, have never had an opportunity to spend that many hours in nature all at once.

Making clay faces during summer nature art camp.

Last year, on the first day of Camp, as we settled down for lunch under the welcome shade of magnificent spruce trees, an eight-year-old burst into tears. I asked her what was wrong and she said “My mom told me this camp was in your back yard, but now we’re lost in the forest!” I hugged her, trying to stifle my giggle because we were barely 15 minutes from my studio, and I reassured her that we weren’t lost at all. “This is where Cisco takes me for a walk every day and we’re perfectly safe.” By the end of the week, this little girl had survived ant bites and learned to pee in the woods. Plus, she had discovered the wonderful gifts that nature offered her and had used them to create her own works of art.  

Although the Camp is adult supervised, those who know me are aware that I am far from being a controlling person. Of course I make sure the kids are safe. But I also give them lots of choice about where we explore each day, and at what pace we do it. And I’m certainly not opposed to a few bug bites and stinging nettles along the way. It’s all part of the experience and it gives the kids more stories to tell when they get home to exhibit their artistic creations.

 

 

 

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Longing for lazy days: a series speaking of Nature’s entanglements

Some time ago, after painting realistic landscapes for ten years, I began looking for my own visual voice. I had realized that the landscapes I’d been painting could no longer speak of the depth and magic of my relationship with the natural world. So I set out to paint differently, to paint in a way that truly speaks of who I am, of what I value, of what I want to bring to the world, and to leave behind. This led me to think deeply about what has influenced my visual world and I soon found myself longing for the lazy summer days of my childhood.

Connected, 24″ x 30″, Oil on cabevas

When we were little girls, my sister and I would float on the Chenal du Moine close to the small village of Notre-Dame-de-Pierreville. Our family cabin stood on a small dirt hill protected against the yearly spring floods, and we were two little girls free to find time to daydream in the dark waters of this gentle river.

Those delicious summer days flowed into one another as we followed the warm currents that led us to Saint-Pierre Lake. As we sat on our life jackets, the water surrounded us with its love and patience and we reciprocated fully. Trusting in its arms, we stood witness to its infinite creations: the plants, the insects, the trees, the fish. It felt magical and boundless and we sensed we were part of it, savouring the smells, the sounds and the landscape. Our skin drank the sun, the water and the wind and we were nourished by Nature’s infinite wealth.

At night, I would dream. I would dream of water, trees and sky. I would find myself floating again, this time, amongst the clouds. Sitting on my life jacket, I would weightlessly travel the sky. My subconscious reviling the ultimate expression of the freedom that lived within us during those summer days. Protected from the watchful eyes of adults, my visual and emotional world was taking shape, strongly rooted in the water and in the forest.

Longing for lazy days, acrylic on canevas, 40″ x 60″

Today, I strive to reproduce those childhood experiences through my creative process and to visually express the powerful emotions they awake in me. My work is a visual expression of that sense of freedom, of communion with nature, and with the world. I long to reproduce those experiences, but being an adult with a to-do list that never ends, I find the only place I can replicate that feeling is while I paint them. Today, in every piece I paint, I make a deliberate decision to, at least emotionally, plunge back into those delicious lazy summer days and to express the magnitude of their grip on my being. And my hope is that I can share them with you, offering the peace and magic they have instilled in me.

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Forest Bathing, Shinrin-yoku

I was busy this morning, totally engrossed in a project that needed my undivided attention. But Cisco begged to object.

At first, it was just a gentle reminder: eyebrow raised, gentle nudging with his nozzle, easy to ignore. “Not now, Cisco. Later.” He drooped to the floor with a barely audible sigh, but there was no ignoring his disapproval, and within a few minutes he is bringing me for my boots and snow pants. Like it or not, Cisco knew it was time to take me for a walk in the forest.

 

 

And just as I did yesterday, and have done most days for the past 18 years with the different dogs that have passed through my life, I’ll do it again tomorrow because it’s a new experience every time.

Today, light dry snow gently settled over everything, including the smallest strand of wild grass. With no wind to disturb it, the forest felt still, quiet and protected. The sky was saturated with an endless cloud that hid the sun, and slowly released its flakes. Only the soft glow piercing the haze reassured me that the sun will one day return.

The forest finds a way to offer a brand-new spectacle every day. But there are days I remember more than others, days where I have seen my forest in a way that I know I will never see it again. Like that April-full day, years ago, where it had snowed heavily the night before and the thick white blanket was glistening in a glorious spring sun, melting at such a rate that I wondered if my dog and I might get stranded on a temporary island. The tree branches, heavy with thick wet snow, where bending across the path. My dog was covered in snowballs that stuck to his fur and slowed him down. I’ll never forget that day.

I was reminded of that day a few weeks ago, when I was listening to a podcast called Revisionist History  The speaker said that for a memory to incrust itself in your mind, there must be a strong emotional experience associated with it, and it struck me than that most of my vivid and longest lasting memories are linked to nature. (Sorry boys, it’s not always about you!) In fact my first memory is of a rock cliff that stood at the end of our backyard in Arvida, Quebec when I was a toddler.

The Japanese have a name for that experience . Shinrin-yoku is a term that means “taking in the forest atmosphere, or forest bathing. And, since the 1980s, forest bathing has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. Researchers, primarily in Japan and South Korea, have established a robust body of scientific literature on the health benefits of spending time under the canopy of a living forest:

  • Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Improved mood
  • Increased ability to focus, even for children with ADHD
  • Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
  • Increased energy level
  • Improved sleep

Just as impressive are the results that we are experiencing as we make this part of our regular practice:

  • Deeper and clearer intuition
  • Increased flow of energy
  • Increased capacity to communicate with the land and its species
  • Increased flow of eros/life force
  • Deepening of friendships
  • Overall increase in a sense of happiness.

For me, all those benefits happen without my noticing. What I do pay attention to, however, is the impact on my creative and visual world. My work has always taken its source in nature, first literally, when I painted landscapes, and then abstractly as I became more interested in expressing the emotional relationship we have with nature. I suspect my forest will keep nourishing my artistic endeavours for years to come. If not this forest, then another one; either way, I will try my best to keep it close to me because I need it, and because Cisco loves it.

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