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Nature's Miracles

Albert Einstein is attributed with saying:

“There are two ways to live. You can live as if nothing is a miracle or you can live as if everything is a miracle. “

It seems to me that children are naturally endowed with an appreciation of awe and wonder, easily finding miracles in a frozen puddle, fossil, unusual shell or snowflake. Given time, children’s fascination for detail and a positive disposition help prime them for spotting the abundant miracles offered by Mother nature, the very same things that often pass us adults by. Reading this quote really struck a chord for me. As a parent I feel that a key part of my role is about providing magical moments in my children’s lives, from Christmas stockings to fairy notes or even just an amazing icicle that I’ve spotted or a picture of a building or construction vehicle that I think they’d enjoy. These little pieces of magic don’t have to cost the earth but bring real pleasure and delight. For a baby where every experience brings something exciting, finding out that a metal tin can be open and shut, makes noise when banged or a rattle when filled and shaken, are all mini miracles to discover.

Striding purposefully to school one balmy spring afternoon last week my eyes were drawn to a young boy on the other side of the road. Aged about three years old, he walked slowly yet equally purposefully, with his neck craned upwards and his head looking skyward. The source of wonderment was the billowing petals on a cherry tree, filling the sky with creamy blossom and literally captivating this little boy’s interest. As he approached the densest part of the canopy, nearest the trunk, he slowed to a standstill, just staring open-mouthed at the laden brunches above. His mum (I presume) who had been walking a little way ahead, turned and paused before remarking upon how beautiful the tree was. Unhurried he moved on, his gaze averted by the speckled pattern of blossom on the floor.

Walking back from school with my children I told them about the little boy and suggested that we cross the road so that we too could enjoy its magic and the miracle of nature’s abundant store cupboard. And that’s exactly what we did, whilst trying to catch fluttering petals in our hands and open mouths!

In my quest for a healthy work life balance I decided to combine a speaking commitment at Derby University, with a family weekend in Derbyshire. As with most family weekends, it was characterised by highs and lows. The cable car ride at Matlock Bath was a hit and the picnic in the sun and exploring Chatsworth’s beautiful grounds made up for the 11pm bedtimes! My trip also gave me some food for thought…

Amongst the carefully tended beds of the formal gardens, a daisy speckled lawn featured three magical looking circles, each a metre across. I found these glistening pools of waterlogged grass mesmerising and was clearly not alone in thinking this judging by the various children who slowly approached the shimmering circles before standing, walking and jumping in them! Mother Nature and our bountiful weather certainly know how to provide intrigue, awe, wonder and excitement in abundance!

Having explored much of the gardens we reached a series of bold metal sculptures near the magnificent house. Unlike the wonderful wicker sculptures whose bulbous curves intertwined around trees, successfully merging the natural and manmade landscapes, these hard cold sculptures stood stark and distinct. As my six year old ran to the first of these industrial-looking sculptures, we read the sign saying Please do not touch the sculptures and quickly stopped the inevitable touching and climbing. A group of ladies approached us and lamented the fact that children couldn’t play with the sculptures, ripe for climbing and playing on. It was then that I realised that while these crude sculptural pieces may not be to my personal taste, they would undoubtedly have been greatly enhanced and their relevance within the landscape increased, if designed for children to enjoy and be inspired by or for adults to pause and perch on. This would have instantly softened their hard edges and created a bridge between the beautiful landscape and its admiring visitors.

The fantastic children’s play area at Chatsworth showed just how successfully large architectural and industrial sized pieces can blend with the environment and offer heaps of play potential. Two working Archimedes screws, a water wheel and a series of robust metal channels and pools encouraged children to draw water from a babbling stream and direct it into a huge sand pit to be shaped with diggers, hands and minds. This provided an altogether different experience for children as they were invited not just to connect with the open ended environment but to actively shape it, something which children across the ages actively did.

Archimedes Screw

All in all it was a magical day of exploration, sensory pleasure and play, only slightly dented by the four hour journey home!

These are my wonderful mum’s pearls of wisdom, and how right she is. She was talking about a picture of a magnificent specimen of Ceanothus, with pillowy mounds of undulating vibrant blue flowers, snapped on my walk back from school. This reminded me of the awe, wonder and pattern to be found everywhere in nature, from the regal candelabra flowers on the horse chestnut, to the delicate tapering fronds of soft lilac petals on the wisteria, draping lace-like over the fence. Speaking of lace, when looking at a fragment of dead coral the other weekend, my mum reflected on how this must have been the inspiration behind lace, its intricate repeating pattern just like a priceless piece of antique lace.

Like nature itself, children’s brains are programmed to seek out pattern to help make sense of their world. Not just pattern in the literal sense, differentiating between spots, stripes and checks, but also in terms of decoding the potential links between objects and events. We now understand that it is only through repeated exposure to a wealth of sensory-rich objects and environments that infants build up a large enough bank of rules about objects, such as dogs have four legs and a tail and a ball is round, to develop categories, (a complex neural filing system), in the brain. With enough rules and categories formed, they can then move onto making judgements based on the similarity between two or more things, rather than starting at the beginning each time they encounter an object. Using the analogy of dogs, with time and plenty of opportunities to encounter and experience different dogs, an infant will understand that all dogs share common characteristics and yet are unique. When encountering a dog breed which they are not familiar with, say a Dalmatian, given sufficient experiences their starting point will be this dog is spotty rather than what is this thing?

And this is where again we discover how wonderful nature is. Not just are children hardwired to explore and spot details in the environment all around them, but the ever changing outdoor environment, its flora, fauna and natural treasures offer infinite opportunities for exploration and discovery, perfect for captivating children’s interest. And so closes the circle as nature has perfected an environment which enraptures children and the human body and brain designed to capitalise on this, that is, if we adults allow it!