I remember how her eyes got wider and seemed to shine with joy as she stared at the maple leaf, at its shape. I'd just told her it's name. Before that moment it had been an interestingly shaped leaf she'd picked up from the ground. Now it had a name. I pointed to a tree nearby and told her that was a maple tree.
She looked from the leaf to the tree, which was covered with similar leaves, and smiled broadly. "A maple tree," she said. "It's a kind of tree?" She looked around her and looked again at the leaf in her hand. Then, looking around at the trees in the woods where we were walking she pointed to another tree. "That's a maple too? Yes? It has the same kind of leaf."
"Yes," I responded.
"But that one is different," she said, pointing to another tree.
"Yes, that is a sycamore. See how much larger its leaf is, and how the texture is different. And look at the bark of its trunk. The white spotty bark that looks rather smooth? That shows clearly it's a sycamore. "
"Sycamore? Oh.” She looked at her leaf and again at the sycamore tree. “Aisha - look, this is a maple leaf!" She scooted over to her friend waving her leaf, eager to tell her its name.
I was out in the woods with a class of 7th grade kids. The girl learning to identify a maple was a refugee from Africa, who had lived in Ohio for years, but she had been mostly in the city and this was her first visit to a wooded area. Yes, there are maple trees in city parks and sometimes down older city streets, but who had ever had the time and background to tell her about them?
Teaching science to children, I've often been reminded of the ayah about Prophet Adam (PBUH) when Allah said He taught Adam the names of things (see Quran 2:31-34). For this knowledge the angels bowed down to Adam. We know our world through the names we give things and the way we classify things. A small child might classify a set of animal pictures by the color of the animals, or by whether they bite or don't bite. We classify them in more complex ways, but we all have a basic need to know the things around us and how they fit into the broader picture. This need to know the names of things is more than just labeling them. When we name something we attach all sorts of information with that name to identify it. What makes it different? How does it sound? Feel? Move? We explore the world and see where we fit in, what we can do with things, and what we need protection from. It’s something in our fitra, our basic nature Allah gave us. Allah tells us in Quran to use this information and reflect to know Him.
Your Lord inspired the bees: “Build dwellings in the mountains and the trees, and also in the structures which men erect. Then eat from every kind of fruit and travel the paths of your Lord, made easy for you to follow.” From their bellies comes a drink of varying colors, containing healing for mankind. There is certainly a sign in that for people who reflect. (Quran 16: 68-69)
Have they not looked at the camel - how it was created? and at the sky - how it was raised up? and at the mountains - how they were embedded? and at the earth - how it was smoothed out? So remind them! You are only a reminder. (Quran 88: 17-21)
It is He Who sends down water from the sky. From it you drink and from it come the shrubs among which you graze your herds. And by it He makes crops grow for you and olives and dates and grapes and fruit of every kind. . There is certainly a sign in that for people who reflect. He has made the night and the day subservient to you, and the sun, the moon and the stars, all subject to His command. There are certainly signs in that for people who use their intellect. And also the things of varying colors He has created for you in the earth. There is certainly a sign in that for people who pay heed. It is He Who made the sea subservient to you so that you can eat fresh flesh from it and bring out from it ornaments to wear. And you see the ships cleaving through it so that you can seek His bounty, and so that perhaps you may show thanks. He cast firmly embedded mountains on the earth so it would not move under you, and rivers and pathways so that perhaps you might be guided, and landmarks. And they are guided by the stars. Is He Who creates like him who does not create? So will you not pay heed? (Quran 16: 10-17)
There is a strong link made in Quran between looking for the signs of Allah in His creation and knowing Him, worshiping Him, submitting to Him. Children can do this. Help them look for the signs of Allah in how ants march in lines across the dirt and carry things bigger than themselves. Watch the waves generated by rain droplets falling into a puddle. Observe how lightweight a butterfly is, and how it flies so far, in spite of the breezes that blow, and finds its food in the flowers no person planned or planted.
Today more and more children are being cut off from hands-on experience with the natural world. For security reasons, parents are keeping their children cooped up in their homes. Children are spending more hours a day in front of a TV or computer screen than they are spending in school in too many homes. When they do play outside, they are often supervised very closely in environments that have been sanitized from anything dirty or unsafe. How many get to try hammering a nail into wood, to hear the sound, feel the strength needed, see how the hard wood yields to the harder nail? That experience is part of appreciating the strength of iron, “And We also sent down iron in which there lies great force and which has many uses for mankind…” (Quran 57:25).
The book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv, is a popular read today for the general public, because the larger society is recognizing this distance from nature as a problem, not of distance from God, but as a basic need of children to know nature. I believe exploring the natural world creates important experiences for children that help them recognize Allah and His message. Is it any wonder that the Prophet said all prophets have been shepherds (hadith in Bukhari), spending long hours year after year in close contact with nature, the weather, the rocks, the changes in vegetation through the seasons and years?
Can you teach your children about the plants, birds, insects, and animals in your local environment? Or are you nature deprived yourself? How can we be effective vice regents of this earth, and answer our Lord about how we cared for it if we only know the world created by man? (see Quran 2:30)
Who around you might be able to help? In my community there are local Metro Parks, with staff and programs to help children as young as preschool. Is a scouting program available? There are Muslim scouts in a wide variety of communities in North America that get children out hiking and camping in the woods. Many children enjoy collecting things like rocks and shells. Libraries have books that help identify them. The internet can help as well. Remind them always to respect living things, like insects, and not to kill them except for necessity. With inexpensive cameras, children can now photograph butterflies and birds, or wildflowers, and make posters or albums of their finds along with labels and any other information they find in their research.
Mention to your children, while observing something, how you find Allah in His creation. It doesn't need to be a big lecture - just a simple statement. Subhannallah! Glory be to Allah. Can you say that instead of saying, "That's cool." How about saying, "Mashallah! Whatever Allah wills will happen!" when looking at some strange insect crawling through the grass. Ask your children about their discoveries. What does Allah have to do with all these different kinds of rocks? Challenge them to answer. It doesn't have to be a chore. How about laying down in the grass with your child and watch the clouds together, praising Allah, or watching a sunset together reciting dua.
Will they get dirty? Sure. What a change from computer games and 'hanging out'.
Say: “Praise be to Allah. He will show you His Signs and you will recognize them. Your Lord is not heedless of anything you do.” (Surat an-Naml: 93)