Conservation for Children

by Angela Hijjas

Now that my children are adults, I look back on my record of creating awareness about conservation issues with them and realise that communicating knowledge about our environment is not necessarily automatic just because the parent is concerned. I generated one child as actively involved, joining me bird watching and botanizing, while the other is more intellectually engaged rather than practically. I have realized that the key to creating involvement and intelligence is creative play, and you need to start as young as possible.

Play in Malaysia is denigrated as a shameful activity for children. As parents complain about their children’s playfulness, equated with being ‘naughty’, they refuse to validate the activity with encouragement. Children learn pretty soon that it doesn’t please parents. Malaysian parents are less likely to get involved and engaged with their children’s activities, and this is the really shameful part. Children learn through play, and they learn more if parents reinforce what they learn by participating.

Now if you think here is some Mat Salleh who doesn’t understand the value of discipline and hard work, my credentials are impeccable, thanks to two very clever daughters, both graduates of Harvard, one a Rhodes scholar and writer, and the other an anthropologist-naturalist studying choreography.

Looking back on those first essential years together with my daughters, I suppose I taught them things that interested me. Look at the birds! See that flower! Teaching them to read the landscape around them for signs of other natural occupants of the spaces we inhabit made our afternoon walks and travelling all the more interesting for us all and encouraged them to feel part of the wider environment. But we also played with water, mud, sand, looked for shells, examined rubbish washed up to the shore. There was lots of fossicking and plenty of time for them to wander freely around and discover things for themselves.

I was surprised recently when a three-year old expressed delight at sitting in a car with the windows open and the breeze blowing in her face: she had never experienced that before! It’s something that we take for granted that everyone knows about movement and wind, but this child had never travelled anywhere without airconditioning. Children need to experience all aspects of their environment to begin to understand that they have a place in it and basic play activities out in the open are crucial to children understanding about the world and how it works. Otherwise they are in danger of seeing everything insulated and separated from them, through the window of a car, or on the screen of a television.

The most important tools must be sand and water. I am yet to meet a child who tires of playing with shovels and buckets, digging, smashing, filling, draining, creating battlements and fantasies, but at the same time learning about how water flows, how it is impeded, scavenging for shells and seaweed for decoration, and seeking new things to play with.

A little direction on activities provides them with insight into the whys and wherefores, and a favorite of mine is to demonstrate centrifugal force. What child would think you can stop water from flowing downhill? I score points every time with that one, merely by swinging a bucket around in a circle and not spilling a drop! It’s called centrifugal force, tell them, give them the right name, and they will remember better than you do. If they can remember the names of dinosaurs, they can remember any word or information that you give them. This is the time to build vocabulary and language skills, with poetry, rhymes and repeated story telling. I don’t believe children should be spoken to as anything other than small people, patronising and limited ‘baby talk’ is an absolute non starter.

Look for shells together, provide them with a shell book that illustrates all the different families (Periplus has recently issued one about Malaysian shells that is not difficult and illustrates and names all the important families). A segmented box where the collection can be stored and pored over could be the beginning of a lifetime interest. My young visitors are delighted to be allowed to pore over my daughter’s collection and discuss what they have, where they found it and (mainly) if she will part with it! Far more interesting than single faceted Pokemon, but if that is all they have access to, then single faceted the children shall be!

Afternoon walks were always a great opportunity to look under the most obvious rocks and probe inside likely looking puddles, finding where the tadpoles lived, finding the imprint of raindrops on clay pans which we took home to start our own natural history museum of fossils. We checked daily on all the local animals, watched the bats darting to catch swarming flying ants after the rain as they poured out in spiraling columns towards the street lights. We named the Erithrina indica the ‘restaurant tree’, because the sun birds regularly probed for nectar and we could watch them from our balcony. We checked the house for toads, especially the lower floor, and respected their right to occupy the guest room as they in fact did us a service by keeping the insect population down… a simple lesson in ecology that required guests to be a little tolerant!

When we traveled we visited museums and exhibitions everywhere. The Natural History Museum in London is a favorite still especially when it has interactive displays on things like the decay of an organism, in our case a rabbit, with graphic photographs of rot and maggots, concluding with the exclamation (after initial distaste) of ‘let’s recycle another bunny!’ The daily drive to school usually presented some form of roadkill that we could check in passing as to its state of decay…. such is life in Malaysia, you won’t see it in a museum but you will see it on your daily rounds! Museums here commemorate human accomplishments rather than celebrate the glory of the world around us, so we need to go round with our eyes open for interesting creatures and processes, stop and look, discuss and read.

One self indulgence that I always splurged on was children’s books. I bought everything as there was no library for us to use, but do be selective. Don’t go for the mass circulation Enid Blyton type of book, look for clever illustrations, something that will intrigue and encourage children to be curious, avoid books with simple drawings of daisies as the only garden flower. Children need visual stimulation as well as information, they need a reason to look at a book again, on their own after you have read it to them because visually there is something more to discover, even if they can’t read. Reading to children can never be overdone. I read on demand for a decade. Admittedly I didn’t do much else, so thank god for domestic helpers!

And here lies the kernel of truth that is hardest to accept in Malaysia: there is no one else who can bring up your children as well as you would do, and you can’t expect an illiterate Indonesian maid to fill the role of parenthood. Those early years are so critical, I wouldn’t have missed them for anything and they paid such handsome dividends. Both always did well in (local) school until forms 3 and 5, although had trouble accepting the rote learning, but they became Malaysians in the process and that I wouldn’t have had them miss.

Give it some thought, and see if you can spend more creative time with your children or grandchildren. It is truly life’s most rewarding experience.