Have You Ever Seen a Cornflake Tree?



Guest post written by Dr. Terry Wilson


Fifty years ago, I became a parent for the first time, and my world changed in an

instant. The unconditional love of a parent for a child that I felt was immediate,

and with that love came a commitment to not only be a good parent and a good

teacher, but also to learn in the process. When my daughter was a preschooler,

we used to spend time walking in the woods and just looking at things in nature.

It was always fun to see the excitement and sense of wonder in her eyes when

she would come across some new animal, plant, or even just a rock that reminded

her of something else.


One Sunday afternoon my daughter and I were walking in a small, wooded lot

near where we lived, and we started looking at different trees. It did not take long

for her to recognize that the different trees in that forest had different kinds of

leaves. Leaves are often where most of us look when we begin identifying trees.

However, on that fall afternoon, lots of the trees had shed their leaves and the

shapes and colors of those remaining had changed a lot as autumn progressed. At

one point, I remember asking her if there were other differences between some

of the trees we were standing near, and she immediately started looking at the

trees’ bark. So, I asked her to touch one of the trees with her eyes closed. She

reached out to a tree near her, and with little hesitation she said, “corn flakes!” I

knew that the tree was a wild black cherry, a tree that does have a rough, scraggly

bark and that, yes, it does sort of feel like a bunch of corn flakes. I was about to

tell her the “real” name of the tree, but before I could share that with her, she

looked up at me and said, “let’s call this the Corn Flakes tree, Daddy!” At that

moment I realized that, at her age, the name corn flakes tree was indeed a great

name, since it came from her own experiences at that age. She knew what corn

flakes felt like, and she had used words that she was familiar with to describe

them.


From then on, she could pick out a corn flakes tree whenever she saw one. Years

later I did share with her that the tree had “another” name. It was a wild black

cherry, or even a Prunus Serotina, the scientific name. But on that Sunday

afternoon, I realized that what was important was that she had “experienced”

something in nature directly and then used her own vocabulary to give a pretty

good description of it. That day proved to be one I often remembered in my

teaching career when I was trying to help my students make a personal

connection with the natural world through direct experiences, not just by relying

upon what they had heard or read in a book.


Indirectly my daughter had also taught me another lesson, and that was that our

children (and all of us) need to have places to experience nature. Half a century

later this need is more crucial than ever, as we continually see natural spaces

converted through development, often with little in the way of celebrating what

is natural. In his book, Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv provides a

synthesis of current research that shows, among other things, that the average

child in the U.S. today spends very little time per week in natural places. At the

same time that same child is spending about 70 hours per week in front of some

sort of device or screen. Louv has coined the phrase “nature-deficit disorder,” and

although he openly states that it is not a disorder based upon medicine, it is

connected to the health of our children. He provides research showing

connections between more and more time spent indoors, immersed in our

devices, with the well documented recent increases in cases of childhood

depression, obesity, and ADHD. At the same time, Louv offers hope, as he talks

about how increasing the time children spend exploring nature can negate many

of the negative aspects of these conditions.

So, what does that mean to me? First, we all need to spend more time outside in

this wonderful world, experiencing the beauty and serenity that can come from

nature. Books like Sharing Nature With Children, by Joseph Cornell, can provide

us with a myriad of simple ways that families can experience the world around us.

Second, it says to me that we need to work hard to ensure that natural spaces are

available to us, no matter where we live. Whether it’s exploring wonderful

outdoor classrooms in places like Raven’s Run, Bernheim Forest, or Land Between

the Lakes, or just the simple things we can learn from a single tree in our

backyard. We must make sure that we get out and learn, with, for, and from our

children. Hopefully you will discover your own “corn flakes tree” out there

somewhere.