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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: Babes in the Woods

by Susan Hellauer

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio.
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The weather’s cooling, Rockland abounds with beautiful natural places, and the Fortnite craze is finally fading. In other words, now might be the ideal time to latch onto a growing trend to get kids of all ages detached from their devices, off the couch, and out into nature.

At the far end of that trend is a controversial movement called “Rewilding.” It’s got some parents yanking their young’uns out of school entirely, providing instead just the basic 3R’s and a heavy dose of nature skills and survival savvy. While that’s way beyond the pale for most of us, it’s food for thought, especially if you or your offspring couldn’t survive in the woods for an hour without a cell phone.

In the 16th year of their mission to connect young people with the natural world through art and science discovery, Earth Matters sponsor Strawtown Studio has just expanded their well-established programs to serve toddlers and teens. EM spoke to Strawtown Founder/Director and Lead Artist/Educator Laurie Seeman and Co-Director, Lead Artist/Educator Joanna Dickey to find out how parents can overcome their concerns, and lead their families back to nature.

nature babies

Outdoor earth art for the under-6 crowd. Photo courtesy Strawtown Studio

What inspired you to create a nature-art program for toddlers and their parents?

JD: I know someone who bought an iPad for their two year old. I thought “Oh my goodness!” Children are such sensory beings, and they’re not getting the sensory experience and delights that help them to grow fully. It’s time for us to be more fully with our kids and enter into their world.
We ran a pilot program last spring, and were impressed by how even an 18 month old could grasp the nature art activity, painting her own feet with Hudson River clay and making footprints.
And then we’ve been getting calls for some time from parents with young children who weren’t finding programs for bringing them outdoors. So we said “Let’s do it!”
LS: One of the benefits of the parent/child class is for the caregivers to relax while we guide the experience. They love that we do the set up clean up, they get to meet new friends, and there is always a take-home craft. It’s both a relaxing and stimulating environment. It’s a special time to create a bond with their child and develop shared values of nature and creativity.

     “It starts with taking your shoes off. It’s that simple.”

                                            Laurie Seeman, Founder/Director, Strawtown Studio

What do you tell those parents who are afraid of taking their toddlers into the woods? Most parks and trails have signs warning about hazards like ticks and Lyme disease.

JD: “Nature Babies: Earth Art for Little Ones” is meant to instill earth values in little ones (age 18 months to five years), but also to support parents in bringing children outdoors, and addressing these fears. We let parents share these concerns and show them how to get their children connected to nature safely, either out in the landscape or in their own backyards.

Safety is our number one priority. We teach constant vigilance. We do tick checks twice a day and have parents do them at home as well. We show them how to identify poison ivy, and that through learning about and raising our awareness of what’s around us, we can go beyond our comfort zones.

Laurie Seeman

Earth art and river science at Nyack Beach Park, led by art educator Laurie Seeman (center, top). Photo courtesy Strawtown Studio

LS: There is a general fear and misconception of bugs of any kind. Bug behavior is fascinating! When children are exposed to nature, where the bugs are naturally at home, they learn that every being in the world has a job to do and a purpose. Recognizing that can raise a child’s level of empathy and compassion for even the smallest of life. 

strawtown studio nature babies

Johanna Dickey (l.) helps a young student turn a vine into art. Photo courtesy Strawtown Studio

What do you do once you’re out in the woods, fields or riverbank? What is “art-in-nature” education?

JD: It’s not simply going on a nature walk. It’s a way to settle into a place, and notice more, which leads to inquiry and open dialogue with whatever we are experiencing in the place.  The art is also personal expression, which leads to a deeper connection. We have been creating programs based on the beauty of our places for so many years, and we have so many different programs, each unique to a place, the season, and the day. Our staff sometimes calls preparing for classes “nature art catering.” It’s like a nourishing creative feast, working on nature-science-art connections, learning from each other with shared conversation, working with hands and getting the whole person involved and engaged.  Each class is a community time that leads to learning about what more there is to love about where we live.

nature babies strawtown studio

What’s wrong with getting dirty outside? Nothing! Photo courtesy Strawtown Studio

LS: Our programs are designed to meet the needs and interests of all kinds of children, those who are active, quiet, adventurous, reflective, inquisitive; those who love to get muddy head to toe, and those who prefer to stay clean.

LD: But our parent-child classes for the youngest are focused on opportunities for the parent and child to make discoveries together.

What else can being out in nature do for our kids besides getting them away from their screens?

LS: We seem to be in the middle of an epidemic of anxiety-ridden children. One of the greatest gifts you can give your children is to put them into the rhythm of nature, and let them get to know the natural world. That is very calming. It’s a chance for children to be more plugged into their own thought processes and feelings, and can even help mend a broken heart.

Where and when do you run your art-in-nature programs in Rockland County?

LS: We’re now at Marydell Faith and Life Center in Upper Nyack. We love Marydell because there are so many habitats: fields, woods, river, and mountain. There’s an incredible diversity of plants and animals, and a legacy of peace and serenity that the place has upheld for so long. And we’re also looking forward to being our community’s “eyes and ears” on the Hudson River there.

strawtown studio nature babies

Meadow, woods, mountain and river make Marydell Faith and Life Center a perfect venue for outdoor fun and learning. Photo courtesy Strawtown Studio

JD: The weekly “Nature Babies” class runs for six weeks, from 9/27 through 11/1. Parents can pay for the whole series at a discount, or just drop in the weekly classes one at a time. Parents should also know that we are starting a new Teen Eco-Art Studio in October, for students aged 12-15 who’ve outgrown our signature 6-12 year old program. It’s a place to hang out with friends and get into more thought-provoking examinations of what’s happening in the world and our environment. We teach higher-level art and nature skills, while the students develop their own sense of style and taste.

So, where do we start?

LS. It starts with taking your shoes off. It’s that simple. Brush a leaf on your cheek and realize that you are a sensory being, and can relate to what’s around you. So many of those abilities are deadened in our world. But it doesn’t take long in the outdoors for our ancient understandings to come back to life.

JD: You know, the earth does have hazards. It can be scary. But it also supports and nourishes us, gives us air to breathe and water to drink. We’re bound to give thanks and show our gratitude.

There’s a quote from Rachel Carson that’s up on our wall, which says it all for us: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

nature babies strawtown studio

Lots to discover at a stream in the woods. Photo courtesy Strawtown Studio

Learn more:

Laurie Seeman

Rockland County Executive Ed Day presents longtime water advocate Laurie Seeman with the award for 2018 Outstanding Environmental Volunteer. Photo: County of Rockland

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Read Earth Matters every Wednesday on Nyack News And Views, or sign up for the Earth Matters mailing list.

Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique, Dying to Bloom, and Strawtown Studio.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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