There is something beautiful about the way kids see the world. As cliché as it may sound, there is just something altogether fascinating and poignant about the all-encompassing extent of their innocence, their open minds, and equally open hearts. For the most part, little cubs have yet to be numbed by years of mindless routine and thoughtless habit. Everything is still brand new, still riveting. They move about their surroundings focusing on- and taking in- every minute detail.
Consequently, they keep you on your toes by asking you- day and night- about all of the minutiae of life, forcing you to elaborate on the banalities of things like socks and soap and glasses on exceedingly short notice. Far from considering it bothersome, however, I have come to find that these peculiarities- intrinsic to the little human status- are actually an added perk of motherhood.
Consistently making it onto their short list of inquiries are questions regarding animals- where they live, what they eat, and everything in between. Their affinity for all creatures non-human knows, apparently, no bounds. They approach them with a level of tenderness the likes of which is nearly impossible to find in any grown-up, and seem to possess a limitless amount of patience and curiosity for the myriad littles and critters they come across as they make their way through the days and nights of childhood.
At this age, there is no hierarchy.
Children have no classification in their minds yet for which animals are deserving of compassion and which aren’t, which deserve a warm spot at the foot of their beds and which only a spot on their plates. I’m striving to keep it that way for as long as possible, trying to establish a foundation of respect and understanding well before life comes in with the harsher- and inevitable- truth. One way I pursue this endeavor is by incorporating animalia into their Montessori-based lessons at home, and that usually means plenty of time outdoors. So in our recent unit on winter, we bundled up and visited the Sherwood Jayne House in East Setauket for an up-close view of how some local animals make it through our harsh Long Island winters.
As we hopped over fallen logs and meandered the wooded trails on our nature walk, the children lost in their sense of adventure and make-believe, we were able to get them to really notice and focus in on the microcosm of our immediate surroundings. We pointed out the horses and sheep keeping warm with only their hair and fleece, we observed nests high up in the bare trees, and eventually we even noticed the relative scarcity of some of our area’s usually more prolific wildlife- squirrels and birds.
This last point gave me an idea.
What better way, I thought, to delve deeper into this subject than by lending exactly the sort of hand our overwintering buddies could use most? I decided that putting together an outdoor feeder in the form of fruit and nut garlands was the logical next step in our curriculum. It had the added benefit of providing a way for the children to interact with animals, even if only at a distance.
Although there are countless varieties and options available for you to help nourish your local wildlife, we chose to keep our fruit and nut garlands pretty simple, ultimately going with peanuts, apples, oranges, cranberries, and popcorn. We could have added even more diversity, but we didn’t want to let the little guys get too excited with a bottomless bounty, especially because I already knew all about the slippery slope. The what, you ask?
The slippery slope.
The logical and noble fact that once you start feeding wildlife- it really wouldn’t be right to stop. So start off with a level you know you won’t have a problem repeating for the rest of the season, and put out items you usually have on hand anyway to make it easier on you. You could really go with any of a wide variety of options including, for example, nuts, sunflower seeds, fresh corn, cranberries, and almost any type of fresh fruit, depending on your area. In addition to the food items, you will also need a roll of kitchen twine and something to skewer your ingredients with- even a pencil will do in a pinch. We used kebab skewers we had on hand in our kitchen.
The preparation process for this activity really is quick and minimal, basically consisting of rounding up your materials into a variety of bowls at the center of your work station. I got everything ready within a few minutes as our cubs sat at the table eating their post-nap snack. First, I popped a bag of popcorn in the microwave as I cut up four-foot lengths of kitchen twine for each little, plus one for demonstration purposes. I then cut up the fruit, threw some peanuts into a bowl, and began placing all of these ingredients right down on the table in front of the littles.
Our cubs could hardly believe their eyes, nor contain their excitement, as they listened to what we would be doing that afternoon.
I started by demonstrating the process of skewering first, and then pushing the twine through the hole with the blunt end of the skewer, and then explained how the idea was to fill up the string with as many pieces of food as they could. I then set them loose, moving around the table supervising their progress and doing plenty of the piercing for them. Eventually, the older ones became remarkably proficient at making the holes themselves, although the peanut shells and popcorn continued to give them some trouble. Nonetheless, their prowess stunned me as I watched their little fingers expertly work the twine through one ingredient after another. They were determined and quiet in their concentration the entire time.
Once we were done threading, it was time to go outside! We washed up little hands and faces and bundled ourselves up. Once outside, it took a bit of trial and error to figure out the best way to hang the garlands so that the birds and squirrels would have a realistic way of reaching and taking the food that didn’t involve supernatural hovering in mid-air.
The best way, we found, was to twist the length of twine around thicker stems so that the animals actually had a place to sit or land while they nipped, ripped, and nibbled. We fastened each end carefully while the cubs went about skewering the extra pieces of apple and orange on low branches and twigs. Finally, we sprinkled some leftover popcorn on the ground around the tree line before taking a final look and heading back inside to warm up.
I have to say that the best part of this fruit and nut garland activity wasn’t the children’s enthusiasm during the process, or watching their surprising aptitude at piercing and threading. Nor was it seeing their excitement as they ran outside to string up their handiwork.
It was afterwards.
It was seeing them run back inside and huddle by the window to watch for any takers. It was the excited shouts and peals of laughter when a sparrow, a squirrel, or a brilliant blue jay came in for a munch. It was this entire scene repeating itself over and over for days until all the food was eventually gone. It was their begging me to do it again. And again. I loved this activity for what it allowed the kids to put into practice- compassion, consideration, and selflessness. Making these garlands affords children the opportunity to act on their natural sense of empathy and kindness, to reflect on their commonality with animals, and to see the immediate results of their efforts.
Without question, I plan on continuing this new tradition with my family every winter, perhaps even trying our hands at different variations of this same concept. For now, however, these simple garlands are doing the job just fine, and they are more than enough to teach the intended lessons to our little pupils in just the ways that appeal to them most.
I hope they never reach the point where they begin to create a distinction between the importance of “us” and the utility of “them.” Right now, I want to focus on developing that innocent compassion as much as possible, the softness that makes them dismount off their tricycles to move innocent worms out of the way, that makes them open the door to let out a stray ant, and that makes them attempt to pet scurrying chickens as though they were dogs in farm class. In their eyes, we are all the same.
This is not only the beauty of childhood we witness when we see and cultivate these things, but the best and simplest element of humanity as well.