Nancy Nicolas is originally from Western New York, and moved to Austin in 2006 with her husband, Emilio Nicolas. They are both attorneys, and in addition to practicing law part-time she is a Tinkergarten Leader. They are raising two children and one dog and are very fortunate to have loving families, friends and neighbors who help them a lot along the way!
My story about how I came to value nature as an educational tool and how it is part of my parenting:
One of the things we talk about in Tinkergarten training is how for many of us, our favorite childhood memories took place in the outdoors. I grew up in a small town where we had lots of green space, woods, and rolling farmland, and my family didn’t make great efforts to “get outside,” but we just always were. Even in snowy Buffalo, New York, my parents expected us to spend most of our time when we weren’t sleeping or at school playing outside; that’s just what kids did. My siblings and I spent a lot of time in sports, at the town swimming pool, visiting with family members in parks and along the Great Lakes, working in the garden, and just using our surroundings to bring whatever playful fantasies to life we were imagining that day. It was a childhood filled with freedom, yet a feeling of complete safety.
When I became a parent, I had a lot of questions about how to make sure my children had the same simple but wonderful experiences I had growing up. I am a person who tends to overplan things, but my parents seemed so relaxed in their approach, and I really wanted to follow their example. When my babies would cry or have difficulty sleeping, stepping out on our porch or walking around our neighborhood always soothed them. Before they could tell me what they were thinking, I could see that they were taking in the sounds of the birds and the breeze, noticing the changes in the moon and the clouds. I felt like they were discovering the world without me interfering or directing them too much; all I had to do was provide the opportunities and nature would take care of the rest. This is when I started adjusting my habits…whenever we could get somewhere on foot, we did, and I found that we got a lot of fresh air and all felt happier and slept better when that happened.
My kids go to a daycare that we really love and also values time in the outdoors. One of the teachers told me a story of a training he went to, where all the teachers were shown a picture of a leaf and asked to list descriptive words. Then they were handed an actual leaf and asked to write any additional words they thought of. The lists grew immensely when they could sense the object in multiple ways. This has carried with me as my children have grown into very inquisitive toddlers…whatever is safe to touch, they touch. They are encouraged to smell, to see, to manipulate, to find any noise, to discover the source, to repurpose… This goes for things we find in our own backyard, like snails and pecans, as well as more exotic locations we have visited like beaches and mountaintops.
I think the best thing about letting kids play in nature is that they learn a sense of time and purpose. The puddle you want to splash in today might not be there tomorrow, so splash; opportunities can be fleeting and precious. The garden you worked so hard to grow may yield fruit but you need to give it time and wait for foods to ripen; you cannot rush things. The seasons will change and things will move on and grow; children learn to celebrate the butterfly and say goodbye to the caterpillar who no longer is. They learn that change is natural and inevitable, and that everything has a place and time, and that individuality is important because for different creatures unique characteristics are what help them survive. I think when they have a strong foundation of this knowledge, as they grow into adolescence and a time of self-doubt, rebelliousness, and change, they will be better equipped to make sense of the world and their value in it.
When I think of my children learning in nature, I think of some of the programs we participate in. By participating in sports, along with other character building, our kids get plenty of time outdoors (and also learn the importance of hydration and skin care). By joining other families on hikes and outdoor playdates through Hike It Baby, they see us building a community and appreciating the parks and trails that we are fortunate to have, and we plant the seeds of stewardship. And by participating in classes like Tinkergarten, they are seeing how nature provides them with playful opportunities to create and imagine and connect on a very personal level. But the majority of their outdoor education comes from the time they spend every day, in our yard, following their own curiosity…digging a new hole to see what’s there, finding the most comfortable patches of soft grass, and gazing up at the stars in wonder. Something about being out in nature brings out the child in me again, and makes my children seem wise beyond their years. Nature is the great educator and equalizer.
Thank you for sharing your story with us Nancy!!!