This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.
The following pages offer some samples of activities done with young children at Sunrock Farm in its attempt at promoting among children a personal, positive relationship with the natural world. There are no examples of songs and dances, but it is felt that both songs and dances are very powerful means to enhance feelings toward the natural world. The stories and games presented here are to be seen as springboards to stimulate readers to create their own.
A tour of Sunrock Farm lasting from two to four hours involves participation in a number of learning exercises aimed at enhancing a person’s positive relationship with the natural world. Whatever the exercise the underlying theme is similar: helping people develop a more intense sense of and participation in nature, relating to nature in a radically different way than that promoted by a post-industrial consumer culture.
Not only is the content different from mainstream environmental education, but so are the methods. Modem education is centered on literacy, whereas bioregional education promotes learning through storytelling, ritual, parades, ceremonies, plays, and so forth. The aim is to awaken the person through real-life, emotional experiences. The goal is development of a personal positive relationship with the natural world. How to do this in the post-modem world is the challenge we all now face. How to do this for three to eight year olds is the challenge facing Sunrock Farm.
The exercises during the farm tour are done in a wide variety of different settings, but each setting is aesthetically pleasing, each beautiful in its own way. Except during summer day camp when children spend a week at the farm no group hears all the stories or does all of the exercises in one farm tour. Which exercises are done varies according to the ages of the children, the type of group, the amount of time for the tour, who is guiding the tour, the season, even the weather.
These exercises have replaced others done earlier at Sunrock Farm and, no doubt, will eventually be replaced by others judged more effective at helping children emotionally touch nature. The exercises will change and develop as the leadership and staff of Sunrock Farm develop. The production of such exercises involves an intense creative process which is both painful and joyful.
Setting the Stage
The first thing we do is to establish the context for the exercises—our place in the Universe, the Cosmic Story. For the young child as for everyone, it is what surrounds them. It is what is above them and what is below them. So we start with the name of the farm they are visiting. What does SUNROCK FARM mean? Well, we eat the plants, but where do the plants get their food from? Their leaves go up and get their food or energy from the sun, and their roots go down to get food and water from the soil which is made from rock. So the sun in the sky and the rock of the Earth feed us all. We have a relationship with them, they are our relatives.
Native peoples say that all living things are the children of the sun and the Earth. We all are members of the Earth family in which the sun (or sky) can be called “father” and the Earth can be called “mother.” Together they make life on Earth possible.
Even the sun and the Earth were made by other forces in the Universe. The Earth family is part of a much older and longer history. Our family goes back to the beginning of time and of everything.
The Circle of Life
There are at present two sites where groups do the “Circle of Life” exercise. The focus of the exercise is a circle of small (fist-sized) stones with a large stone in the center. Ancient peoples, and some today, used the stone circle as a sacred area. It has a long history among many peoples and can be still commonly found in American culture when combined with a campfire.
(Ask the children to gather around the stone circle. Explain that Native Peoples in America and all over the world used a circle of stones to teach their children important things about the Earth.)
“The large stone in the center of the circle is called the Sunstone or Sunrock and it represents the sun which is necessary for life on planet Earth. (Here is a good place to talk briefly about heat and energy from the sun or about the four directions.) Native peoples knew the importance of the sun and what it gives us. In the Earth Family some people call the sun the “father.” Who is the “mother” in the Earth Family? Yes, it is “Mother Earth.” And together they produce all the living things on the Earth.
“Each of these small stones represents a different animal or plant on planet Earth. Let’s play a game with these stones. It is called the Circle of Life game. Everyone pick up a small stone. Hold it with two hands and be careful not to drop it. I will go first and then we will go around in the circle.
“Each of us is going to become a different animal or plant, and one of us needs to be a human person since people are also part of the Circle of Life/Earth Family. Who wants to represent the humans (or people)? Each of us will then tell who we are, for example, you can say, “I am a whale, or apple tree, or tiger, or bear.” Then you say, “And this stone stands for all the whale, or apple trees, or tigers, or bears on planet Earth.” Of course, this young lady/boy has agreed to be a human and so she/he will tell us that when her/his turn comes.
After we say who we are we slowly put the stone back in the circle. And as soon as the stone touches the Earth, everyone is going to say “Yes!”. But we will do it in Native language and the word is “Ho!” What is the word? (“Ho!”)
“OK I will go first. I am a (for example) maple tree, and this stone stands for all the maple trees on planet Earth. (Then slowly put the stone back in the circle. As you do so ask the children: “And what do you say?” (“Ho”!) Now turn to the child on your left and ask him/her to do it. It is very important here to be patient while a child decides what to be. Sometimes it is necessary to quiet the other children if they begin to get restless. Sometimes it is helpful to remind a child that they could be a bunny, bear, etc. But don’t act impatient. Rarely does it need to be said, “Well, why don’t we get back to you later.” and continue with the others.
At the end we simply clap hands for “all the animals and plants, all the living things in the Earth Family.”
Harry Returns Home
Note: This is usually done with children 3 to 5 years old. A later version of this story was developed in collaboration with Ricki Pucke for inclusion in a grant proposal.
(An Earthball is place in front of the children and the storyteller—between them.)
This is the story of Harry. A nine year old boy.
Harry was not a nice boy. He would step on ants and spiders. He would pull up flowers and throw them away. Harry would throw stones at birds and would yell at other children and push them away. Other children did not like Harry, and they called him “Horrible Harry.”
One day Harry was walking and he looked down at the ground and began to talk to the Earth. He told the Earth, “I don’t like you Earth. I wish I could get away from you.”
Then something strange happened. The Earth heard Harry and thought, “OK Harry if you don’t want to be with me, then I will let you go.” And Harry began to float away from the land and go up toward the clouds.
(The storyteller gets low to the ground and then slowly rises higher and higher moving away from the Earthball.)
Slowly Harry went up higher and higher, higher and even higher. He passed the trees, and the squirrels look at him and blinked their eyes. He passed the birds and they were careful not to fly into him. He even passed the clouds high up in the sky.
Then he began to get cold, and he got thirsty and hungry. The Earth was far below him and he began to feel lonely. Soon he started to cry. He was sorry, he told the Earth, he wanted to get away because now he felt cold and thirsty and hungry and lonely. He realized that he had made a mistake. So he called down to the Earth. “Earth, I’m sorry I said that I wanted to leave you. Please take me back.”
Well, the Earth heard Harry, and what do you think happened? Yes, the Earth reached out to Harry with the force we call gravity and slowly brought Harry down. (Stand up and slowly go down.) So Harry went down and down and down. He went into the clouds and came out below them. He passed the birds and waved at them. He began to feel warmer. He passed the tops of the trees and waved at the squirrels. Finally, he landed on the ground.
When he landed, he patted the ground and said he was glad to be home. He got something to drink and then something to eat. He thought, “Boy, it’s good to be home!” Harry look at everything around him and said how wonderful and good things looked. He looked at the blue sky, the white clouds, the green trees, the beautiful flowers. He felt the warm breeze against his skin. He looked down at the ants and spiders, but he did not want to step on them anymore. Instead, he said hello to them. Some children came up to him and instead of pushing them away, he gave them a hug. He felt happy inside and he smiled. The other children noticed this and do you know what they now called him? Yes, he now was known as “Happy Harry.” And he looked at the Earth and said that he was glad to be home.
Who are we?:
We are the Tree People
Standing before the tour group the farmer says: “The Earth is not the same everywhere.’’ (Holding the Earthball and pointing to the North Pole say: “Up here what is all this white stuff? (snow and ice) Yes, this is the land of the ice and some call people who live in the land of the ice: the Ice People. (Pointing to the brown areas of the Earth:) This is the desert. People who live in the desert can be called the Desert People. This is the grassland and people who live there can be called the Grass People. Those living in the mountains can be called the Mountain People. Those living on the islands can be called the Island People. And those living in the land of the trees (the lucky ones I think) can be called the Tree People. So who are we? Do we live in the land of the ice and snow? (NO) Do we live in the desert where there is only sand? (NO) Do we live in the mountains? (NO) But do we live in the land of the trees? Are there trees around your house? Are there trees around your school? (YES) So what kind of people are we? (We are the TREE PEOPLE.)
And here in the land of the trees we are not alone, we live here with many other animals and plants that only live in the land of the trees. What are some wild animals that live here with us: raccoons, opossums, mice, beavers, birds, snakes, groundhogs, deer, foxes, rabbits, insects, and many others. So these animals are not only our relatives, they are our neighbors too. We can call the land of the trees our bioregion, our natural homeland.
Since we are the tree people let’s sing a song about trees. Here is a short song we can all learn quickly:
Trees, trees, trees, trees,
All I ever dream is trees.
Thick trees, thin trees,
Tall trees, short trees.
Let them all grow.
The Goose Who LaidGolden Eggs
(The old German folktale of the goose which laid golden eggs explains the idea of usufruct in a direct and understandable way. If we kill the goose we will get no more golden eggs. If we lose the topsoil we will not be able to farm the land. If we destroy the Earth we will have no more living things. Only by protecting the source of production do we enjoy the fruits of production. Impatience and greed must be avoided.)
In a small town long ago there was a goose which began laying eggs of solid gold. The people of the town would collect the eggs and sell them for a lot of money. But some men in the town were tired of waiting for the goose to lay her golden eggs. They were impatient. They wanted the gold from the goose all at once. They decided to call a meeting of all the people in the town.
At this meeting the men said, “We are tired of waiting for the goose to lay her eggs. We want all the gold now. We want to kill the goose and take out the gold inside of her. We want to be rich now.”
In the back of the meeting room was an old woman. She shook her head when she heard this. She said, “You men are greedy and impatient. If we love the goose and take care of her, then she will continue to lay golden eggs for us. But if we kill the goose, we will find no gold inside of her and we will have no more gold to buy food and books for the town. We must take care of the goose just as we must take care of the rivers and land and trees. They give us good things, but if we kill them we will get no more good things from them.” But the men would not listen to her.
“You are wrong, old woman, we will kill the goose and get all the gold now.”
That night the men went into the field where the goose was sleeping. They crept up on the goose and one of the men grabbed her by the neck and another man cut off her head. Then, with a big knife they cut open her body. And what did they find inside?
There was no gold inside of her. There was only goose bones, goose guts, and goose blood. Then the men cried out, “Oh no! There is no gold inside of the goose. The old woman was right.”
Slowly the old woman walked up to the dead goose, She looked down at it and then looked up to the men. “See what you have done.” she said, “You have killed the goose which gave us golden eggs. Now we have no more goose, and no more golden eggs.”
The men told her, “Yes, we were greedy and impatient. But we have learned our lesson.”
And from that day onwards all the people of the town loved and protected the animals. They protected the trees and the beautiful land which gave them food and made them happy. They learned not to be greedy. They learned to be patient.
The Rainbow Warrior
Behind the farmhouse is a nine foot statue with its arms reaching toward the sky. It was done by a student artist and soon became part of the farm lour. When children are brought to it a story is told. Here it is:
That statue is called the “Rainbow Warrior” in memory of the Indian story of “The Rainbow Warrior.” Would you like to hear that story?
Do you know what a rainbow is? Yes, a beautiful bow of colors in the sky. And a warrior is a brave person. One who has courage instead of being afraid.
Well, the Indians would tell this story to their children around the campfire. The story goes like this:
Some time in the future, the Indians said, the animals would begin to disappear. People would no longer see the wolf, or the bear, or the eagles. And, the story goes, the giant trees would also disappear. And people would fight with each other and not love each other. And, the story goes, the beautiful rainbow in the sky would fade away, and people would not see the rainbow anymore.
Well, children would come. And these children would love the animals, and they would bring back the animals. They would love trees, and they would bring back the giant trees. And these children would love other people and they would help people to live in peace with each other. And these children would love the rainbow, and they would bring back the beautiful rainbow in the sky. For this reason the Indians called these children the rainbow warriors.
Now let me ask you a question. Do you love animals or hate animals? (We love animals.) Do you love trees or hate trees? (We love trees.) Do you love people or hate people? (We love people.) Do you love the rainbow or hate the rainbow? (We love the rainbow.)
Well, if you love animals and trees, people and rainbows, then maybe you are the rainbow warriors whom the Indians talked about, and that is a statue of you.
The Great Dance
One activity which attempts to convey the idea and feeling that we are all involved in one great natural process is called “The Great Dance”, and it is taken from Native American lore where “the Great Dance” means all the natural processes around us. The activity has been used at Sunrock Farm for the past ten years.
“When the Native peoples lived here they thought that the whole world was involved in a Great Dance and they taught their children to be a part of this Dance. So now let us divide into two groups. The group to the left of me will say in a really loud voice, “There is a Great Dance.” Then the group to the right of me will answer them and say in a loud voice: “Come into the Dance.” Let’s try it….Good.
Now I am going to describe something in the natural world which is going on and then this side says, “There is a Great Dance” and the other side says, “Come into the Dance.” We will continue this way for a while and then it will be your turn to describe something which is going on in the world around us.
“The white clouds move across the blue sky.”
refrain: “There is a Great Dance”
“Come into the Dance”
“A fox eats a rabbit in the woods.”
“A deer runs quickly through the field.”
“The leaves fall from the trees.”
“The birds are singing.”
“The spiders are building spider webs.”
“People are planting seeds in the ground.”
OK, now it is your turn to describe something which is happening in the world of plants, animals, trees and people. When you think of something to say, please raise your hand and I will call on you to speak.
Child: “The birds are flying:
refrain: “There is a Great Dance”
“Come into the Dance”
And so on until the energy of the group seems to lessen.
Discussion of the activity can follow immediately or later. It should focus on how the children perceive the world as ONE unified experience or entity.
The Second Body
Another technique to convey to children the idea of linkage with the planet ecosystem (or biosphere) is the concept of “the second body” where the planetary ecosystem is seen as being the source of food, water, and air for the human body—’’the first body.” The concept originated and was developed for teaching children at Sunrock Farm, an educational farm in Northern Kentucky.
The children are asked to touched their stomachs, and then asked if the stomach can live all by itself, outside of the body. After the children answer no, they are asked to touch their hearts, then head or nose or other part and after each asked again if the part can live outside of the body. The parts of the body must be connected to get food, water, and air from the body and thereby stay alive. An important analogy is then made.
“Some people say that we really have two bodies, this is our first body. But our first body cannot live by itself. It needs to get food, water, and air from our second body which is the world outside of us. The soil gives us food, the clouds give us rain for water, the green plants give us oxygen to breathe. The second body keeps the first body alive.”
“What would happen to our first body if we took it (without a space suit) into outer space—took it out of the second body. Yes, it would die. There is no food, water, and air in outer space. We need to be connected to the Earth in order to live. “
“And what would happen if we made all the water of the Earth so dirty that we couldn’t drink it…And what would happen if we killed all the green plants…or took away all the soil for the plants. Yes, we could not stay alive. We are connected to the second body through our mouths, noses, ears,in fact, through all our senses.”
The idea of the second body may strike you as strange at first, even a little bit weird, but the more teachers have thought about it, the more valid and important it has become to them. It is a tested idea, and seems to evoke a good response in the children it is introduced to. One third grade child responded, “I think that the second body is even more important than the first body.” His explanation was scientifically correct: If the second body dies, then we all die.
The idea of the second body is important because it conveys a personal relationship to our natural world, to the Earth. It enhances our bonding to our world, our personal biosphere, our natural support system. Mars, Venus, the moon, etc. are not our second body. Only the Earth is. By seeing the Earth as a “second body” in which the child lives, she or he is able to make an essential link between personal well-being and the health of the planet. After this concept is understood by the children, they are able to connect on a more personal level with nature as the plants, animals, minerals and life processes they are part of.
To breathe is to share the air.
To drink is to share the water
Nothing reminds us better of our membership in the Earth family than breathing and eating and drinking. Here is something that we all do everyday and in every place. Here lies a profound connection, almost a union, with the beings and processes of Earth. The following breath exercise is usually done during a rest break when hiking around the farm.
“Everyone take a deep breath. And exhale.
Now take another breath. And exhale.
Now take a breath and blow it out on your hand.
Where does the air go after leaving your body?
Yes. It mixes with the rest of the air.
“When breathing, are you taking inside you air which used to be in other people? Do animals have to breathe? (Yes) Do plants have to breathe? (Yes) So when we breathe are we breathing in air which used to be in other animals and plants? (Yes). Now we are going to play a little game. I’m going to mention an animal or plant and we will breath in its air. And I will mention another animal or plant, and we will send our air to it. Then I will ask you to tell us what animal’s or plant’s air we should breath in and who should we send our air to.
“Let’s begin by breathing in the air from the sheep. (Everyone takes in a breath.) Let’s send it to the cows. (Everyone exhales.) Let’s breathe in the air from the birds. And send it to the horses. Let’s breathe in the air from the spiders. And send it to the trees. Let’s breathe in the air from the flowers. And send it to the rabbits. OK, now its your tum to tell us whose air we should breathe in and who we should send it to. Let’s breathe in the air of (the children now raise their hands and suggest different animals and plants).
“Water is not being created on planet Earth, and it is not destroyed. It passes from one living thing to another. We drink water every day even when it is in the form of orange juice or milk. And we pee every day giving our water back to planet Earth to be used by some other living thing. Like air, the water that we accept everyday used to be in other animals and plants. Let’s play a game to learn this fact even better.
“We are going to pass water around from one person to another. When you give water to the person next to you tell them: ‘I give you water.’ When you receive the water you say: ‘I accept water.’ (Now give a handful of water to the child at one end of the circle or line. This can also be done using imaginary water.)
Programs At Sunrock Farm
Our main goal is to provide children with an enriching “hands-on” experience with the natural world. At early ages we offer experiences relating to drink, food, and the breath which are aimed at demonstrating that we are always connected to the Earth (together with the Sun). Gravity, urination, defecation, and our social dependence on other humans are other connectors which are mentioned. Thirst and hunger, the desire to urinate and defecate, feelings of loneliness are all messages to us that the connection has been temporarily suspended and needs reconnection.
These connectors are bridges to our relatives in the Earth Family: to the other animals, plants, soil, air, fire, and water. Everything is connected to everything else, everything is related to everything else. Our bodies connect us to the Universe, to the past and even to the future.
In addition to the general farm tour program Sunrock Farm has several specialized programs which may be used together with the general farm tour or in place of it. These specialized programs are usually intended for third grade and above, going even to the high school level.
A Multi-Cultural Farm Experience
Most of the animals and plants on an American farm originally come from other parts of the world. And native farm animals (turkey) and plants (corn, tomatoes, potatoes, etc.) have spread into and influenced other regions of the world. This program is strongly oriented toward geography and history.
Genetics on the Farm
One of the most significant finds of recent genetic studies is that all life forms on Earth share the same fundamental DNA/RNA molecular pattern. This demonstrates that all life on Earth shares a common origin. All life shares some commonality. All life can share genetic material.
Much of this program is dedicated to showing how humans have influenced the genetic evolution of farm animals and plants and how we continue to do this through artificial insemination, embryo transfer, cloning, and recombinant DNA. The program contrasts “natural selection” with “human selection.”
To help students become aware of the natural place they call “home”—What is their bioregion like?
To help students understand the basics about how the Earth works and how their daily lives affect how the Earth works. What are the basic ecological patterns everyone needs to know about?
To help students expand their sense of wonder at the marvel of the natural world through direct experience of it.
To help students enrich and develop their sense of belonging to this local natural place through direct experience of it.
The Golden Rule Poster
In order to have the lessons of Sunrock Farm carry over into the daily lives of visitors even after they leave the farm, it seemed appropriate to give the visitors something to take home. Something with the message of Sunrock Farm on it. And something which children could put in their own rooms and learn from. Thus, the idea of the Golden Rule poster came about.
The poster describes the golden rule as it is expressed in different religious traditions, and it concludes with the golden rule as taught at Sunrock Farm under the rubric of “Earth Wisdom” namely, “Do one of the above, and live in such a way that you will enrich, and not diminish, our relatives in the Earth Family of animals and plants, soil, air, and water.”
The basic idea here is to first encourage children to practice the golden rule as it applies to other people—the traditional approach—and then to extend its practice to our relatives in the Earth Family, that is, to the rest of the natural world. The poster therefore reminds us of the traditional statements of the golden rule and adds the thought of Aldo Leopold as expressed in A Sand County Almanac: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise.” (1949: 239).
By using the term “relatives” we are building on what the children already are familiar with. They know who their relatives are. They know about mother, father, brother, sister, grandpa, grandma, aunt, uncle, cousin, and so on. They know what a family is all about. Now we are asking them to think of the elements of the natural world as part of their larger family—the Earth Family. We are trying to go from the known to the unknown, from the familiar to the new. We are trying to help children build a relationship with the elements of nature—not an abstract “Nature”, but with real animals and plants. And the relationship is not a utilitarian one whereby they can freely use animals and plants as resources, but the relationship is one of respect.
“Farmer” Frank Traina (1943-2014) was an educator and writer. After earning his PhD in sociology from Cornell, he moved to Kentucky to teach at Northern Kentucky University, but ended up devoting himself instead to the farm he purchased in Wilder, KY in 1978. Sunrock Farm hosted educational programs that “raised consciousness,” serving mostly Cincinnati-area children. About 25,000 people visited annually for decades. Farmer Frank also published Pollen, a journal of the North American Bioregional Congress Bioregional Education Committee.
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