Monday, May 12

i love dirt


52 activities to help you & your kids discover the wonders of nature
by Jennifer Ward
foreword by Richard Louv
illustrations by Susie Ghahremani
Trumpeter / Shambhala / Random House 2008

galley provided by publisher

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this book, and everything wrong with it. It's a book for kids, but it's a book for parents. these are the best of times, these are the worst of times...

As a collection of outdoor activities for adults to do with children there's very little fault I can find in the premise of the execution. Most of what is included are simple outings, grouped by season, that allow parents and children to commune with nature of a manageable scale. There are bird watching activities, cloud watching games, backyard camping or a general nocturnal excursion. All with goals attainable in most parts of the country and with little investment. Each of the activities also includes a "Help Me Understand" box with select questions and answers that a child might ask.

But all in all, it's sad that it's come to this.

Going out into nature should be, well, natural. It shouldn't feel guided by a book that provides one activity a week - giving the air of a constitutional duty as opposed to enjoying the enterprise. In the introduction, Richard Louv talks about how when he was a child in the 1950s he would go out into the nearby woods every chance he got. But in half a century we have become a nation of people who must schedule their children's playdates, supervise their destinations with cell phones and text messages, and must budget time to shove our children into nature in order to learn (and hopefully respect) what the Earth Mother has to teach us.

Kids just don't "go out" the way they used to, the way I used to. Physically the neighborhoods haven't necessarily changed, but our relationship to them, and our priorities about this free time, has changed. We no longer trust our children to trundle off to places where they can explore on their own, nor do we allow the time for such behavior by preferring to over-program kids into structured, organized teams and activities. And so, to fill this deficit in our culture, we have books to help us attempt to round out the experiences of our children.

In books like this aimed at parents there is an unavoidable undercurrent that the parent in need of such a book either won't find the book, or will feel condescended to. The point where I feel this most is the little check box at the end of each chapter that summarizes the purpose and goal of the activity. "Encourages exercise and well-being," "Stimulates wonder, experimentation, and a feeling of exhilaration," phrases like these give the book it's pedantic feel and sours everything that proceeds it. It's one thing to have a book as a reference for what to do with kids in he great out-of-doors, it's another entirely to have to be told that the exercise will "Stimulate caring and stewardship for living things." And what if it doesn't, is the exercise a failure? Is there something wrong with parent or child? There's little a family can do with these exercises if they don't go as planned but turn around and go home.

Also, the problem with the "Help Me Understand" sections is the presumption that a child will only have one question per activity. If the exposure to, say, a spider's web or a bird's feather opens a child's imagination there is clearly an opportunity to explore further on line or at the library. As the review copy I received failed to include the Resources and Recommended Reading listed in the table of contents it is hard to judge whether this book is all that helpful in supplemental guidance. Still, to only address one bit of trivia per outing seems a bit shallow.

The publisher feels the activities will appeal to children from 4 to 9 but I can tell you most of what I saw wouldn't float with my girls beyond the age of 7 or so. So it's for the curious, the very young, and the parents who might not otherwise introduce their children to nature without a guide.
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