Posts Tagged ‘Children’

Scientists in Norway have just announced the discovery of a non-toxic high-tech building material with a host of economic and environmental benefits. Homes made from this substance are expected to use 10-50% less energy for heating and cooling than homes made from traditional materials.

The new substance was discovered by a team working to identify chemicals that could absorb carbon dioxide, a major cause of climate change.

A pilot home built in 2005 was found to absorb nearly 50 pounds of carbon dioxide every year. Projections show that if every house in Northern Europe was made from this material global carbon dioxide emissions could be cut by 5%. As a completely unexpected side benefit, the material also absorbed other air pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In every test the scientists ran, air quality was higher in and around the pilot home than in a traditional home.

Most amazingly, using this material was estimated to add only a few hundred dollars to the cost of a new home. However, based on the material’s beneficial effects, including significantly reduced energy costs for homeowners, it was projected that building with it may increase a home’s value by up to 20%.

If you were thinking this story is too good to be true, you’d only be partly right. On the one hand, there is no newly discovered health-promoting, planet-saving, dirt-cheap, inexpensive building material. In this, you were correct.

On the other hand, you can have all the benefits above, plus many more, and for the same price, by simply planting some trees next to your house. Well placed trees and shrubs can indeed save 10-50% on heating and cooling costs. Just one mature tree can indeed absorb 50 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, along with a long list of other air and soil pollutants. A single large oak, for example, can pull 40,000 gallons of water per year out of the ground and discharge it into the air, reducing flooding and soggy lawns.

For communities, the impacts are even more striking. Tree-lined streets are 10-15 degrees cooler in the summer. Pavement on these streets lasts far longer and the streets are far less likely to flood. Urban tree canopy can reduce stormwater runoff by up to 7%, and when combined with other natural landscaping, by up to 65%. This results in huge cost savings for towns and significant improvements in water quality in nearby streams, lakes and aquifers.

If the environmental and economic benefits of trees are not enough, the social benefits are equally compelling.

Studies from blighted urban Chicago housing developments show that residents who could see trees from their windows had stronger ties to their neighbors and engaged in less physical violence against their children than those without trees. These studies are striking because the residents were largely homeless families who were randomly assigned to apartments as their names came to the top of long wait lists. In other words, the people with greener views were no different to begin with than those without.

Green views have also been shown to enhance healing in hospital patients and concentration among college students. Children with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) had the fewest behavioral problems after being in green spaces with lots of trees when compared with any indoor activities, including sports, or outdoor activities in spaces lacking greenery, such as urban parking lots. This finding held true even for children who lived in green neighborhoods.

I’m intrigued by this last bit of data. It suggests that even if a child has trees outside her window and walks past trees to get to school, it may still matter that there are trees on the playground at recess. More natural settings may have more powerful healing effects than we realize.

This fall the town of Brunswick built a new school. Where possible, efforts were made to preserve older trees, and many new trees have been planted around the property, although none next to the children’s play areas.

Recently a little friend of mine who attends the new school told her mother how much she missed the playground at her old school. So they returned for a visit to the empty little playground, nestled into a grove of old pine trees.

With a huge smile on her face, the girl roamed about the play structures, sliding down slides, ducking under hideouts, trying out the swings. Many of these same features were present at the new space, so the mother asked her daughter what she’d missed so much.

It’s the trees, she replied.

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Here I am reporting again from that troublesome border between human and beast. Should you not think the border is particularly problematic, consider the case of the backyard chicken.

Last year Brunswick passed a law allowing in-town homeowners to keep chickens. My daughters were thrilled, as I knew they would be. They love animals.

I’ll say it again: they love animals. Did they want chickens? Badly. Eggs? Yes. Did they want to feed, chase, cuddle with, and otherwise harass the chickens? Yes. Did they want cute silky chickens with furry legs, handsome wine-colored chickens, chickens with stained glass feathers? Absolutely.

Did they want savory chicken stew with homegrown carrots and potatoes? No. Emphatically no. Not open for discussion. Never. Ever. We were not going to kill our chickens.

At first I thought this might be OK. I knew chickens only laid eggs for a few years, but I didn’t think they had a particularly long life span after that. It wouldn’t be so bad to allow them to live out their few short retirement years, scratching dirt, eating slugs, learning to knit and doing all the fun things they never had time for.

That was my plan until my husband said, “Seriously, how long does a chicken live?” Oh, not that long, I ho-hummed. Then I went and looked it up. Ten years was not uncommon, fifteen not unheard of.

Well, that was a game-changer. I was in this for the eggs, for the unique pleasure that comes from growing your own food. I wasn’t in it for a scant two years of omelettes followed by eight years of paying to feed a flock of lawn ornaments.

Uh, kids, can we talk? They promptly burst into tears, imagining the future slaughter of their future beloved pet birds. We can’t get chickens, I said, if we can’t take them to the butcher when they’re done laying. Then no chickens, replied the kids.

And so we talked. We talked about chicken intelligence (would they know we had betrayed them?) We talked about knowing where our food comes from. We talked about being vegetarian. We talked about eating eggs and meat. We talked about bacon. We talked about looking our food in the eye. We talked about respecting the lives of other creatures. We talked about honesty and hypocrisy. Nothing too heavy, really.

Then we rested. In the car, the next day, they said, let’s talk about the chickens some more. At bedtime they had even more questions. I couldn’t answer most of them. I could, however, hear the little gears turning in their heads.

My youngest daughter held out the longest. She has, in fact, some reasonable credentials in the save the animals department. Even the lowly tick I pulled off her back last summer had to be taken into the garden. It was just trying to eat, she observed. I didn’t say whose garden I put it in.

I recalled a conversation with her a few years back. We were planting a raspberry bush and came across by far the largest grub I have ever seen–a truly disgusting creature, fully the size of my thumb. It was the type of thing that evil villains in sci-fi movies put into their victims ears, you know, to eat their brains. I placed the grub, too horrible to squish, on the lawn and went back to my planting.

A while later my daughter noticed the grub was gone. Maybe a bird ate it, I said. But, she protested, that would be so sad! You like birds, I said, with calm, impenetrable parental logic. They have to eat too. Yes, she replied, but they should eat grubs we haven’t met yet.

Doesn’t that just say it all? Our obligations to those we know are inherently different than to those we don’t know. Sometimes that’s as it should be. We can’t attend to all of humanity the same way we care for our friends and family.

But it’s also true that many of the world’s problems stem from our inability to connect our actions to their consequences, especially when those consequences occur in far off places to people and animals “we haven’t met yet.”

This is why it’s so wonderful for kids to engage with the world in ways that begin to light up the path between action and consequence. The eggs we get from the market, even the free-range, organic, super-happy-singing chicken eggs, are eggs that come from chickens that will likely be slaughtered as soon as their laying years are done. Most farmers can’t afford to support unproductive birds.

My girls have decided to go ahead with the grand chicken experiment. I worry a bit that I’ve talked them into something they really don’t want to do. After all, they told me right from the start that they’ll be mushed when we kill the chickens. If it turns out to be terribly traumatic, I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Yet, raising chickens shines a flood light on at least some of the issues surrounding what it means to eat animal products. It’s a rare, honest interaction with the world–perhaps something we should be doing more often.

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Elena Newmark, age 13

Elena Newmark, age 13


What is the worth of a Salamander in the Hand?  To a child exploring her world, is a salamander in the hand worth two under the log?  Does holding the fragile creature, as it perilously dries out, reinforce some primal connection to nature that remains stubbornly inert if she just looks at it?  


The theory that hands-on interactions bring benefits unachievable through other means is supported by decades of research on how people learn.  It’s why science classes visit tide pools, it’s why we dissected frogs in high school biology, and it’s why I still remember what volvox look like.


My 7th grade science class, about which I recall little else, collected water from a local pond, looked at drops under the microscope, and then constructed fabulous models of the creatures we found.  Volvox, a type of algae, are pale, ethereal balls, coated in fine translucent hairs, and often filled with smaller brilliant green globes (baby volvoxes).  I thought they were irresistibly wonderful.


I am convinced that kids should get their hands dirty, wade in shin deep mud, climb trees, build forts, and catch frogs.  Yet I have often found it oddly difficult to let my kids live this way.  One problem, of course, is that all this romantic mucking about requires young kids to have unsupervised time in natural places: something most of us are no longer comfortable with.


Carl Newmark, age 10

"Can I keep it Mommy?" Carl Newmark, age 10



But for me there is another problem.  Much of the time my family spends in nature is in areas set aside as protected places, such as state parks and land trust preserves.  The ethic in all these places, if not the actual rule of law, is to disturb the surroundings as little as possible.  In other words, keep your hands off.  At these places I teach my kids to stay on the trail, out of the trees, and off the slow-growing moss.


In our heavily used wilderness areas, an entire school of outdoor recreation has developed known as “leave-no-trace.”  You brush your very footsteps away as you leave your campsite.  This may seem silly here in sparsely populated Maine, but if you’ve ever seen the banks of once pristine alpine streams eroded into mud slides by hundreds of hikers having lunch, you’ll understand where the idea comes from.  Leaving no trace may be okay for adults, but can we teach our children to love and respect nature if we treat it like a museum?


Pondering all this recently, I decided I should let my kids spend some time in natural areas that did not have as many rules as our usual outdoor haunts.  We walked to a small wooded area just a few blocks from our house.  No trails to hike, no peaks to climb, no swimming holes to dive into, no rules.



Within minutes the kids had found five dark, sinuous salamanders, each with a red stripe running down its back.  My six year old cupped one in her hand, her giant finger petted its head.  “I’m snuggling with it!  Isn’t it cute?,” she said.  “Very cute,” I replied.  Meanwhile, alarm bells were clanging in my head: it stopped moving! you’re going to kill it! it’s too dry! you’re petting it too hard!  


She wanted to know if we could keep it.  I told her we needed to find out more about how to care for them, and she reluctantly returned it to its log.  The kids had a great time, but there was no doubt that it was because they held the salamanders, petted them, and snuggled with them.  Looking at them would not have done the trick.  


Back home, I discovered that our new friends, northern redback salamanders, are the most common salamanders in our forests.  Salamanders are a highly successful, ancient species; the modern form differs little from the earliest amphibians of 400 million years ago.  And, if age and wisdom are linked in the wilderness, redbacks are wise indeed for they can live up to 30 years.


As for keeping one as a pet, websites blared warnings at me: salamanders taken from the wild usually die of stress, handling amphibians can give you salmonella, check the regulations in your state before taking any animal home.  As if that weren’t enough, the 2004 Global Amphibian Assessment found that nearly 50% of salamanders species worldwide are at high risk for extinction.  


Hands-on with nature is not quite as simple as it was for prior generations.  With more than 6 billion people on the planet, we do have to be more careful than we used to be and we do have to teach our kids to be more careful.  It’s much easier, as well as infinitely more pleasant, to tell our kids that nature is boundless and they can play with it at will.  It’s also easier to give them a simple message to stay on the trail and keep their hands off.  


However, I fear that neither of these over-simplified messages feeds the curiosity and fascination that allow them to care, while also giving them the respect and knowledge they need to be good caretakers.  


Where does that leave me in deciding if my child can keep a redback salamander as a pet in Brunswick?  This morning I called the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.  They promised to have someone call me back.  If the state biologist says it’s okay, I will let my daughter take home a northern redback salamander; if not, I will be able to explain why not.  I finally realized that it is knowledge that will let me navigate the line between hands-on and hands-off.  

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