Have you ever caught yourself musing, while looking at the children of today, how different they are from the way you and your friends were at their age? They are not those kids who used to run around until sunset without a care in the world, a phone in the pocket, or sunscreen on the skin, locked out of the house till 9 pm. They are not the kids who spent days at the beach and in the park where parents would bring them in the morning and pick up at night. They are not the kids who grew up in the countryside running barefoot, hopping on hay and building forts out of it.
The kids of today are sharper, more intelligent, more articulate, more technology-savvy. These natives of the digital world relate to one another and to the environment around them differently. They experience friendship differently. They process information differently. One may often find them sitting across a table, in a room, on the subway, frantically typing messages into their gadgets, and when they meet another person’s eye spontaneously, they often become uncomfortable and uneasy. Technology made it possible to spend days and months without coming face to face with another person, communicate solely with hands, and yet preserve the feeling, potentially superfluous, of staying connected. As a result of these differences, it appears that their social and interpersonal skills, empathic abilities, curiosity and awareness of the natural world around them become less stimulated and underdeveloped.
As parents, many of us contemplate these differences seriously. On one hand, it is hard not to see the positive effects of the digital movement and how it has the potential of propelling these digital natives in myriad ways towards expansion in innovations, self-expression, networking, dreaming up new business models. On the other, are our children becoming more socially awkward? Are interpersonal communication skills being harmed? Is the awareness of our connection to the natural world and each other becoming less apparent? Does this take away from the depth and breadth of the senses to feel and be able to bond, connect, feel emphatic, share, collaborate and create together?
Many parents, employers and educators are of the opinion that nowadays children and young adults lack interpersonal communication skills and have difficulty to focus on and engage in face to face interactions. Various neuroscience research studies have begun to examine how technological communications alter our brains. The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August of 2010 in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ empathy has declined tremendously since 1980, due to the social isolation, the type and form of the information being consumed, and the resultant emotional responses. Psychologists, teachers and writers have asserted that due to over-reliance on telecommunications and internet addiction, we are becoming a society with acquired characteristics of autism, with narrowed senses that no longer values face to face interaction. (Y. Baruch, Information and Management, Volume 38, No. 3, 2000)
The intricacies and quality of the language used in digital realm also plays a big role in shaping our feelings, emotions and social skills. Traditionally, the communication function occurred by means of communal ritual gatherings. When we look to indigenous examples, we can observe the storytelling and other right of passage skillsets that elders have applied in their interactions with the youth to pass on traditions and connective practices. Such skillsets have been deemed essential for the survival of the indigenous cultures and taught as a mentored skill. This commonality can be found in various tribes such as the San Bushmen in Africa, the Adivasi in India, and the aboriginals in Australia.
Nowadays, with the widespread use of telecommunications, the communal gatherings with long flowing conversations and storytelling components are being replaced with much shorter interactions in digital realms, utilizing abbreviations and pre-conceived responses. Oftentimes, such shorter interactions take place simultaneously with multiple connections and relationships happening at the same time. Without the adequate focus, attention and opportunity to explore the richness of vocabularies and underlying emotions present in the storytelling styles, our communications and relationships become less emotionally-satisfying, more transient and shallow, and self-awareness and connection to the inner self and the world around us is diminishing significantly. “The accumulation of brief social interactions creates a self that is constantly reacting to and adjusting according to the judgments of others, in a way that never occurred in larger gatherings” (Goffman, 1961, Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates).
Without creating an overreaction to gadgets and electronics based on our own fears and dislikes, the all-times question of delicate balancing between caution and encouragement arises. What can we do to teach our children to broaden perceptions and experience the world with its vast array of teachers through their own senses? What can we do to help them acquire strong sense of community, nurture sense of connectedness and master the skill of communication and dialogue? How do we empower our deeply lyrical kids to share their dreams, longings, visions and emotions and express empathy?
Nature as a Connecting Medium
We want to examine a certain idea of this current paradigm. It goes something like, “Oh, well you like nature, and I like baseball, she likes dolls, etc.”. Unfortunately, the big flaw in this thinking is that nature (however defined) is somehow an option, a hobby; a “thing” that you can either do with, or without depending on taste. Some kind of a thing you can do on the weekends but then go back to what? As you may know Nature is not able to really be seen as a hobby considering that nature is the substratum of our survival as a species, even to play baseball, or drink water you need the Earth, and its resources to be intact and health. The question then becomes how can we raise generations of people who understand the connection of every human activity back to the earth and who can see the whole cycle intuitively, instinctively, and rationally?
In this day and age, perhaps in the last 30 years, teaching nature connecting practices appears to be a much harder and daunting task because of the disconnect that we, as a species, are allowing ourselves to experience. You may think, and even genuinely state that, “I’ve tried to get my kids to go camping, or I signed them up for this or that activity, and it was a horrible struggle and now they are more resistant.” This often is the case, and I see it often within families’ dynamics which just haven’t been able to click the right pieces in place. Perhaps we can develop a more subtle approach; one that starts from the very ground of our daily experience, rising out of the seemingly mundane. We can’t control our children, but we can always ask the right question to spur this natural growth of awareness towards the natural world. All of the subtle questions asked can seem ineffective at first, but with practice and patience this can and does deepen a person’s awareness towards the natural world, and in turn themselves. Curiosity can literally be stimulated, sometimes outright tricked into existence, by the right questions; the right attention, so how do we, as parents, or teachers, carefully and creatively instill the right questioning process?
The Art of Questioning Process and Finding edges
Some people become very good at one liners, or memorizing quotes. What if we could become proficient in dropping the right question at the right time to open up doorways of awareness which, in turn, will gently and carefully expose an edge, without a feeling of dumbness or creating inferiority complexes? We all have edges, or gaps of awareness in our life. This is a natural human process. It is very important when teaching and mentoring to listen closely for these edges to become exposed, and instead of reacting with facts finding a systematic series of questions to help gently nudge people to go beyond their edges.
This art and practice to egg someone towards their own realizations, instead of telling them more words, can be much more effective and empowering, stirring up one’s intuitive knowing. Most of us are exposed to only the method of “adults” taking on the “I’m the teacher and you must learn this because I say it’s important” role. Don’t we all recall what it feels like to be lectured at day in and day out? This way is ineffective for many, and we tend to rebel against it.
So let’s imagine that you could play a role of a teacher who gives child the opportunity to explore gaps in his understanding of a subject, by listening to his reasoning and explanations and then dropping a map of questions down on him instead of lecturing the answer.
Let’s take a small journey to see what such questioning scenario may look like in this example:
Imagine that you see a bird outside and your child is sitting in front of the tv, somewhat lulled by the screen buzzing away. Imagine that you create a reaction of significance by exclaiming “Look, what is that?” directing child’s attention to that old robin or sparrow that would you have otherwise ignored. Perhaps the child’s head or ears perk up, and he replies:
- Oh, that’s just some bird.
- Really? Do you know what kind of bird?
At that moment, you have hit the child’s edge. The child does not know and accepts that he doesn’t know. And here’s where the right question determines everything. Half the job is already done. The child has actually looked deeper at this bird than he previously has, and next time he encounters it the depth of that imprint will remain. The child will see it deeper, whether he is conscious of it or not.
However, you may go further and perhaps something like “hmm is it a crow? Is it an eagle?” turning it into a game. Stimulating the process of elimination thinking, you are helping the child to know all of the things that the bird is NOT. If the child is really not interested, perhaps asking something funny to catch him off guard, “is it is an elephant? A cow? A giraffe?” would have a great impact. Laughter goes a long way.
Once the bird is identified, the tendency would be to stop the questioning. However, we must continue to stretch our depth with these questions. The list of questions can go on infinitely. “If it’s a robin, what color is the beak?” “What color are the legs?” “how many toes?” “What is it eating there?” “Where do you think it lives?” “Is this the same one we saw yesterday?” “What are its songs, its alarms?” Once the process unfolds naturally, the levels of deepening the possibilities to break life out of a museum context and to expand the senses becomes indefinite, widening teaching and learning platform.
Questioning is a fun art, and with practice it becomes very natural, as if a latent power within us. When we can remain in the beginner mind, we empower the child or student to come to their own realizations the same way we had. As a result, a great confidence will develop in those we mentor.
Asking questions stimulates our innate and natural curiosity of a human while exposing us to our own edge and showing to us how much we really pay attention. This is the most important thing for all practice; if we don’t know how to find our edge and ask the next relevant questions, then we become like the horse with blinders forced to race towards an imaginary finish line.
This practice naturally stimulates our neurons to pattern greater awareness and attention, and results in wide open eyes and sensory engagement. The opposite of that is a dull and monotonous sensory life based on the feeling that it’s the same thing I’ve already seen. Yet, this is hardly true when we practice this skill set. And, incredibly, this practice correlates with our brain state, we all know how we feel like when we stare at a computer screen for too long, and we all know what it feels like to stare out in an open vista on a fall day, soaking in those deep colors, the richness, and feeling the unseen majesty and power of the natural world.
The Skill of Storytelling
Another way is to set aside time for a story. This is a great way to get children to become aware of the significance of their own experience. The storytelling also gives them the freedom and ability to learn to articulate and express themselves. Asking children what they experienced and showing enthusiasm, spurs a second memory of the experience, “not only did I have the experience, but I now recognize after thinking back to it, how significant it was.” This recognition creates new pathways in the brain.
Practices to Deepen Our Process
A very helpful way to solidify the questioning and storytelling processes is by keeping a journal, both for yourself as the teacher and for the student. In time we find that by journaling we start to see deeper connections that we were previously unaware of. This awareness is similar to seeing how by walking in the woods, and breaking a stick, that breaking sound triggers a bluejay to alarm, which causes the groundhog to run and hide. Tom Brown Jr. in his “Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking,” calls this awareness “concentric rings.” The birds are broadcasting it all in the form of alarms. This world is occurring, unbeknownst to most humans who choose to keep their blinders on.
Wide Open Awareness
Getting ourselves and our children out in the natural world means more than just a walk through the already trodden trail of monotony. We can explore with our eyes wide open and allow the techniques of the naturalist guide us. Whether it’s learning to track animals or people, foraging for wild plants, trees, or mushroom hunting, a routine such as developing a sit spot and journaling about it, or meditation and breathing exercises in nature. Even hide and seek is a great way to invoke the primal self in children which leads them to develop the awareness of greater subtleties, problem solving skills, and to get wonderful amounts of exercise, while feeling connected to something greater than themselves. Perhaps most importantly, they will grow up excited by the natural mysteries unfolding, and create a memory bank of all of the experiences they had while growing up.
Photography by Dina Divine (Turetsky)
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