Cracks in the Sidewalk: Urban Children and Nature

Cracks in the Sidewalk: Urban Children and Nature

0-8She can’t help it, she’s addicted. Her pockets are full of pebbles, petals and pinecones. She fingers them, inspects them closely and returns them to her pockets for safekeeping. They remain hidden for a minute or two before the ritual repeats. She reminds me of the teenagers I see on the bus compulsively checking for messages on their phones. But, the messages she’s reading have the power to transform.

She’s reading about beauty in imperfection when she inspects the rent edges of trampled flower petals. The lesson will serve her well as she grows up in an airbrushed world. She’s reading about endurance when she thumbs the jagged edge of a pebble worn but not yet weary of holding its shape against the forces of wind, water and tires. I pray she keeps her sharp edges and refuses to be smoothed into sameness by her peers. She’s reading the mystery of Mother Nature in the spiraling symmetry of pinecones precisely crafted by an unseen hand. I hope she remains captivated by the mystery until the last exhale from her lungs.

Nature is my daughter’s teacher, even in the middle of our urban neighborhood. The lessons she learns along the sidewalks are deep, even where the tree roots are shallow. In fact, the lessons may be deepest there. For it is there she sees nature prevail over human intrusion. Every time her bike bumps over the broken sidewalk, she is absorbing humanity’s drive to conquer and nature’s drive to endure.

When we escape the city to stand at the base of a waterfall, canyon or sequoia tree, my daughter’s face is full of wonder. Endless landscapes filled with the pebbles and petals and pinecones she loves so dearly. She’s awed by the sheer gluttony of it all.

Someday, I will break it to her that the landscapes aren’t endless. That beaches full of pebbles in various stages of the stubborn struggle for rough edges are inundated with trash. That the bees that pollinate imperfectly beautiful flowers are dying in alarming numbers. That the fire cycle of the forests and ability of her beloved pinecones to fulfill their destiny is being altered by humanity’s need to protect vacation homes.

Someday I’ll tell her that.  But, for now, I’ll embrace her wonder.

It might just be the key to saving the world.

The world is becoming more urban. Though the definition of “urban” varies, in 2008 the scales tipped and more than half of the world’s population was living in cities and towns. Some see this as a deficit, evidence that we are losing touch with nature. But, I embrace the shift.

I predict urban children like mine who grow up with an inexplicable pull toward the small bits of nature they find scattered about man-made metropolises will be outspoken advocates of protecting the wild places their parents and grandparents have not yet desecrated in the name of commerce, productivity or ownership. Urban children grow up knowing in small ways—libraries with more books than a personal bookshelf could ever hold; a corner park with a zip-line and merry-go-round instead of a backyard swing set—that it is better to share a pie than own a crumb.

And, a world where more than half the children understand that basic truth may just be the radical change we so desperately need.

Kristina Cerise is a Seattle mom trying to find a little meaning in the madness.  She blogs at, tweets as @DefineMother, and talks to anyone who will listen at the local coffee shop.

Illustration by Christine Juneau