PHOTO BY JESS DRAWHORN
ESSAY BY BROOKE ROBINSON
When children visit Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I watch their senses unfold as they open up to the fresh stimuli around them. Magnolia blossoms throw ballet slipper petals to the sky. Streams curl around rocks and roots, reflecting dappled sun. The Shakespeare Garden explodes with a crowd of periwinkle, gold, and scarlet. Though these movements are more subtle than the outside urban world of horns, trains, and bright advertisements, they do not go unnoticed. As children’s perceptions of these subtle movements expand, so does their joy - and there is nothing more beautiful in the garden than the way it inspires brand new wonder. Each morning, no matter the weather, I corral groups of children around trees and garden beds, looking closely at bark patterns and butterflies, and I am able to feel their kinetic excitement. I share this mood, always genuine and sometimes theatrical, perhaps gasping at the discovery of a pine cone under my feet. Mirroring my enthusiasm, as children tend to do, they are now all searching the ground, picking up more cones than their small hands can hold, letting them burst and tumble back down to earth.
Standing under waving sycamores and oaks, we begin a lesson in meditation. “Let’s close our eyes,” I whisper, “And listen to the sounds around us.” Trucks honk in the distance; the wind is blowing; a lonely distant blue jay screams. I watch them all fall silent as they hold down smiles with tightly shut eyes. After ten seconds pass, they open. “What did you observe?” I ask. A girl donning unicorn mittens looks up and smiles. She says, “I heard the trees, their branches making sounds. They were talking to each other!” A boy blurts out with wide eyes, “I heard the roots growing!” This is an exercise in close listening, but I often find that the young imagination becomes the greatest tool. On a cloudy day in November, hearing the conversation in a breeze and the invisible creak of spreading roots speaks to the way in which nature and children communicate: without barriers.
Children have a natural intuition for the connections of the elements around us. They hear things adults cannot hear, see things we cannot see, and imagine entire worlds within the fabric of our own. It is as if we are looking at a tapestry, seeing the whole picture, while children see each colorful stitch. As I welcomed a group of children one spring day, I posed an introductory question about the five senses: “What tools do we have on our bodies that we can use to observe plants?” This was a small class of students on the autism spectrum, visiting from a school in south Brooklyn. After a few moments of thinking, a boy raised his hand. “Our hearts,” he said. This city child, with a brain wired so differently than my own, perfectly captured the sentiment I myself had been trying to understand for years. As an educator, I was gently reminded to step back from pedagogy and vocabulary and toward love-fueled curiosity. Tools of scientific observation have their distinct value, but with open hearts and vivid imaginations, we can see the tapestry of a forest in the stitch of a pine cone. With childlike wonder, we can all hold a reverence for our world that sinks beneath our skin and spreads to our spirit.