The teeming world of toddlers
  • Cay Burton

There’s this park where we go on days when it’s just the two of us. Usually, we leave the house sometime between our morning snack and lunch, but today we’re finally heading outside after her afternoon nap (some days it just takes longer to get a toddler, myself, and all our stuff out the door). The time of day doesn’t matter so much as actually being outside at some point in our day together. Living in Vancouver, the weather isn’t an excuse either; rain, sun, wind, or snow, little kids are adaptable to all types of weather and, when given the chance, always seem to find some natural element worthy of their attention. When it comes to playing outside, it’s more often the adults who don’t think rainy weather is ideal for outdoor play. As this child’s caregiver, I couldn’t disagree more: The rain is an important part of my and this toddler’s world, if not for the skittering of worms and slugs suddenly scraping their way across the sidewalks, then for the appearance of puddles — glorious, splashworthy, water-over-the-tops-of-your-boots puddles. (We can dry off and warm up inside afterwards.)

Today, though, it’s only raining lightly. We’re prepared for it: raincoats boots for the both of us; green rain pants for her, making her legs look like watermelon rinds; her pink toque with kitten ears; a scarf around my neck. After manoeuvring the stroller loaded with snacks, water bottles, and extra layers out the front door of the house, both fully clad in our weather-proof outfits, we’re ready for the fresh air and cool temperature of the early April outdoors. Who, or what, will we encounter in the neighbourhood today?

Randy White discusses the epidemic of many children’s playgrounds being ‘void of nature and vegetation’ (2004: 1). Not so with our neighbourhood play area. This park is only a ten-minute stroller ride away, and is perfect for toddlers. The playground itself is a nucleus boxed in by sand and surrounded by a field of grass where people spend time with their dogs, have picnics, or do yoga on blankets. I’ve seen very young children take their first steps on this grass. To the left, there is a border of trees dividing a dirt-exposed sloping hill from the alleyway behind people’s houses. On the right, there’s a rock wall buffeted by more trees and shrubs, where dandelions, clover, and other wildflowers grow. As the child and I arrive at this magical outdoor space, some of these flowers poke their new faces in our direction, absorbing the misty rain. I lift the child out of her stroller and we walk, hand in hand, down the slope to the playground. Crows call out their greedy welcome, waiting for backs to be turned so they can inspect strollers for forgotten Cheerios and squished blueberries.

The playground structure is a fairly standard Canadian design, a combination of metal and wooden climbing fixtures, cushioned by sand that children spend hours moving, shaping, pouring, moulding, and carrying in buckets. All the toys at this playground have been donated for community use with the unspoken agreement that what’s left here, stays here. Most of the toys are broken, missing parts, or are stuck shut with sand, but the children don’t seem to mind. If you watch carefully, you’ll see how the toddlers at this park find much more creative uses for a Fisher-Price kitchen set in a state of decay than when it was fresh out of its plastic packaging. Shovels, of course, are always in short supply, but we make do with empty yoghurt containers, sticks, and giant Lego pieces. It’s a loose parts boneyard, the source of endless entertainment and possibilities for young minds and hands.

The playground is a mini-universe of activity in one tiny corner of the sprawling metropolis of Vancouver, composed of human and non-human, natural and unnatural components. Affrica Taylor and Miriam Giugni would call this a ‘common world’ (2012: 109), a place where many meanings and many perspectives meet. At the swings, we smile in greeting to the other children and adults. The rain feels fresh on our faces and makes our hair frizzy. A seagull and an airplane pass overhead.

After spending some time in a bucket swing, the child in my care wants up and out. It’s time to explore. At first, she walks over to where some older children are playing in the sand and watches what they’re doing. She offers them a piece of a plastic toy, weathered from sitting out in the open over the winter months. The older children accept her suggestion, acknowledging her attentiveness, and carry on with the digging. It strikes me that this is one of her first acts of reciprocity, of offering something forth in anticipation of what will be gained. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes reciprocity as a process whereby we ‘respect one another, support one another, bring [our] gift to the world and receive the gifts of others’ (2013: 132). In order to give back to the older children for what she’s learned through observing, she offers a gift in gratitude. I did not teach her this. The impetus to express thanks towards others clearly already resides within her heart. My job as a caregiver, then, is to nurture this tendency like I would the growth of a flower from a seed. When she walks back over to me, I say, ‘That was very nice of you to share’, because I’m aware that we live in a world of finite resources, and — as the climate crisis unfolds — sharing what’s left of the Earth’s gifts will disproportionately fall to this child’s generation. I’m proud of my budding sweet pea.

Then we’re moving on. While it’s true that children’s ‘freedom to play, explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restriction or supervision’ (White 2004: 2) has shifted in Western culture over the last few decades, the extent of this freedom depends entirely on the age of the kid and the environment in question. I try to keep my distance. I want her to know that she is safe to roam without my hovering, but I remain close enough to intervene if need be. I’m a witness (Blaise & Pacini-Ketchabaw 2019) to her outdoor exploration as much as I’m a part of the common world we’re constructing together in this moment (Taylor & Giugni 2012).

Being a caregiver-witness means opening myself up to the world around us and seeing what wisdom exudes from the non-human creatures in our periphery (Blaise & Pacini-Ketchabaw 2019). Here, I’m reminded of another offering made by Kimmerer, in that ‘paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own’ (2013: 300). Noticing and learning from more-than-human ways of being implicate us in the co-construction — and reconstruction, according to Taylor and Giugni (2012: 110) — of knowledge embedded in particular lands, times, and places. I watch, and as I witness the movements of her tiny rain-geared body, I realize that she is demonstrating this exact process, as well as the perception it necessitates, in her tromp through the soggy grass. What’s more, her ‘curiosity with the natural world and unique way of knowing’ (White 2004: 4) the playground is best honoured by my giving her the freedom to move independently about the space, confident that her caregiver is nearby and watching, keeping her safe.

The child heads off across the sand to the stone-speckled pathway cutting across the grass like a ribbon down the side of a birthday present. This is what rain boots are for: traversing beyond the boundaries of the playground to move into a new ‘contact zone’ of experience (Taylor & Giugni 2012: 116). What will she encounter next, with me trailing behind? Although she struts down the path for a little while, she soon moves off into the sparkly wet grass, meeting puddles along the way. She expresses her excitement, turning back to me with each new discovery. ‘Puddle!’ she says, walking through each one eagerness and glee. And then, as she looks further head: ‘Ducks!’

Common worlds are defined as ‘generative encounters with others or shared events that have mutually transformative effects’ (Taylor & Giugni 2012: 112). The child and I are suddenly, inextricably involved in a ‘significant cross-species encounter’ (2012: 112) in the common world of the playground. In this moment, two human and innumerable more-than-human creatures meet each other across the water-logged grassy expanse of the playground area. In addition to the child, the witnessing adult (me), and the two mallards puddle-bathing, some of the other creatures making up this common world moment include: the grass; the trees; the birds; the shrubbery; the stone walls standing silent around us; and the birds. There are even more unseen components present, down to the micro-organisms in the soil beneath our feet. Through this encounter, we’re entwined in a ‘relational ethic’ (Taylor & Giugni 2012: 113). We experience each other. By witnessing and meeting each other in this park, at this puddle, we are entangled in a common world in which we are all vital.

As the child shares her incredulity that ducks can be at home in a puddle (rather than swimming in a pond on Granville Island, where she’s used to seeing them), the co-creation of a world unfolds. This is the ‘emotional and affective value of nature’ that White (2004: 4) advocates as being important in early childhood. While toddlers may not be developmentally ready to process abstract thoughts about nature and environmental conservation, they experience affective responses to it. In other words, the emotional experience of nature is where the learning happens. This seemingly simple encounter is one that sparks awe of and interest in the natural world for this child. This is the connectedness to the more-than-human that Sobel (1999: 3) talks about, and that environmental educators can cultivate in their day-to-day routines with small children.

Despite the tangible, affective aspects of this encounter, mapping all the human and more-than-human subjects involved in this common world takes time, thought, and awareness, particularly when we disrupt the human-centredness of the equation (Taylor & Giugni 2012). The common world in this situation does not arise solely from the human perspective that the child and I share. What did the trees around us perceive in this moment? What if that dog over there suddenly spots the mallards, too, and runs over to join us at this puddle? What did these ducks think of us, anyway? Did we disturb these creatures despite our good intentions and our hesitancy to get too close? I encourage the child to hang back, saying, ‘We don’t want to scare the ducks away’.

We’re not scary, but we might be, especially to sitting ducks who may have experienced aggression from other children at this park. How can I support the child’s care for and connection to these animals while also keeping our distance? As a caregiver, how do I best promote this child’s ‘empathy with the natural world’ (White 2004: 5)?

And what about those things that are not-so-distant, like the histories of the land we’re standing on? What does it mean for our common world that the land on which this playground is built is stolen, colonised? What are the ‘decolonising possibilities’ (Taylor & Giugni 2012: 114) of this particular moment, and how do I communicate the depth and significance of this to a toddler? Am I truly tapping into these possibilities by witnessing, reflecting and holding space for this interaction? By thinking about how all the components of this common world — the human, more-than-human, and the histories of land — come together in this moment, I realise that this is a multidirectional process of being part of an environmental ethic. All creatures and components are connected in ways ephemeral, theoretical, tangible, and affective. Through this connectedness, common worlds can be noticed for their extension into the past and future as much as they manifest in the present.

Taylor and Giugni encourage us to think about ‘place as a heterogeneous “event”, involving geological, human and more-than-human “throwntogetherness”’ (2012: 114). The playground is this place for me and this child. Today, at this park, the child learned that mallards are not isolated to specific bodies of water, because ‘leaf by leaf, root by root, the trees, the berries, the grasses are joining forces, and so there are birds … and bugs that have come to join them’ (Kimmerer 2013: 332). The complexity of the scientific processes involved in this happenstance can remain inexplicable, for now, but she will grow quickly and I’ll need to teach it then. But beyond this, and based on the child’s sense of embodied wonder, it is clear to me that important ecological knowledge has been gleaned through this encounter. Not just for her, either — I’ve learned something, too. Part of reciprocity is recognising, as humans, the power we possess in our interactions with the more-than-human in these common world moments. Children possess this power, and can sometimes be more attuned to it than their caregivers. By allowing children the freedom to explore outdoor places, and by witnessing their discoveries, we come to see that we’re all part of a common world as we encounter one another.

 

Works cited: 

 

Blaise, M and Pacini-Ketchabaw, V 2019 ‘Enacting the postdevelopmental lexicon through pedagogical thought’, Canadian Association for Research in Early Childhood (CAREC) [Closing keynote]. The University of British Columbia (UBC): Post-CSSE Conference

Kimmerer, RW 2013 Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants, Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions

Sobel, D 1999 Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education, Great Barrington, MA: Orion Society

Taylor, Giugni A & M 2012 ‘Common worlds: Reconceptualising inclusion in early childhood communities’, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 13.2: 108–19, http://dx.doi.org/10.2304/ciec.2012.13.2.108

White, R 2004 ‘Young children’s relationship with nature: Its importance to children’s development and the earth’s future’, Taproot 16.2, https://www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/childrennature.shtml