Kids, Eco-Anxiety & Gardens

Heat domes that elevate temperatures to unsafe levels and spark wildfires. Fierce hurricanes and tropical storms that flood homes. Bitter cold snaps that down trees on electrical lines. Climate change has increased the incidence of extreme weather conditions, which can be worrisome for adults and children. Konnie Vissers, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, is interested in how children experience eco-anxiety and what that means for their spiritual well-being. She’s exploring the effects of gardening as a spiritual practice children might use to feel less threatened.


Welcome. I am Karen-Marie Yust, and my colleague Erin Reibel, and I are talking with Konnie Vissers, who is a doctoral student at the University of Toronto. Konnie is interested in issues of eco-anxiety and children’s spirituality. Konnie, thanks for being here today.

Thanks for having me.

Konnie, what are some direct and indirect forms of eco-anxiety that you know affect children?

Thanks for that question. That’s really important to me, actually. There are many forms of eco-anxiety and a lot of people think that eco-anxiety just has to do with children having this sort of existential angst about climate change. And that is one form of eco-anxiety. It’s kind of an indirect form, but there are much more direct forms as well. And those forms tend to be in marginalized populations more frequently, particularly in the two-thirds world, the Global South. Though we do see them in Canada and the United States and Europe. For instance, this past year there were horrific wildfires in Canada. The smoke blew down into half of the United States as well. There were air warnings everywhere. My daughter, who is now six years old, was in kindergarten and she has fairly severe asthma. And our school system here, only about half the schools have air conditioning units in the schools.

This never used to be a problem because we live in Canada where it’s cold, but it is a problem now. And as schools were over 90 degrees during the day, they had to open all of their windows. Even in the midst of these smoke warnings that were above the level 10, which is the max here, it just says 10 plus on our scale. And so our young children were breathing in this really awful air, and my daughter came home from school one day, and she couldn’t breathe. We got her into a room with a HEPA filter and everything and got her regulated, but she had to stay home for a week because she couldn’t go to school in the smoke. And she had a lot of questions and anxiety around why is this happening? Why is there so much smoke here even though we don’t have fires here?

And as we talked briefly about the environment and some of the things happening, she was very upset by it, because it directly affected her. So that’s more of a direct consequence. Another thing I often see is as climate change has really exacerbated over the past few years, we’ve seen it affect farming and food prices considerably. In Canada, it is becoming increasingly impossible for the normal middle class family to just buy groceries. More and more people are turning to food banks and such. And there was one time a couple years ago where I take all the food from the gardens that I run to our community food fridges, and I saw a young child leaving school in a school uniform, so I knew they were just on their way home from school, stop, and they waited for me to fill the fridge.

I had bunches and bunches of this organic kale, which I don’t know about you – I like kale personally – but a lot of people don’t. And this child waited and then grabbed just a handful of kale and left and just munched on it on their way home. And that to me was a really poignant example of a food security shortage that has been not solely brought on by climate change, but exacerbated by climate change. And so that’s another form of eco-anxiety. Any feelings related to the environment, whether they’re to your direct needs or whether they’re to the more global idea of environmental decline.

You mentioned the gardens you run, and I know that you’ve opened two gardens in Ontario in the last two years that you call it Children’s Gardens. Why do you think it’s important for children to have access to gardening?

Yeah, thanks. So I think gardening is one of the most productive tasks that we can do as humans, and I mean that in a very literal grounded sense. We’re literally producing our own food at these gardens, and that can be very empowering for children who have food shortages in their family. We live in a city where one-in-four to one-in-five kids are food insecure. So that’s a fairly significant percentage. And in Canada, we currently don’t have school lunch programs or breakfast programs like you do in most states. So sometimes these kids go to school with no food and there are nonprofit organizations that donate food to schools, but for the most part, we don’t have school cafeterias at all. So it’s a very different system. And in the midst of all these shortages, I thought, what better way to give kids food than to teach them how to grow their own food?

During the pandemic, this idea sort of started brewing, and then I began to recognize spirituality at work in this gardening play, if you will. So I’m a big fan of Jerome Berryman’s work in Godly Play, and I thought about some of the things that make that great. He offers a playground for children to enact their faith essentially. But with my work in eco-anxiety, I’m also recognizing how children need to be connected to the earth, to nature, to this sense of something greater than themselves that is rooted not only in the transcendent, but in the physical world that we live in as well. So through a series of opening these gardens and learning alongside these kids, I am coming to see that it is a playground. It’s a playground for kids to work out their eco-anxiety. It’s a playground for kids to work out their faith.

As existential questions come up, it’s a really good environment to just have those side-by-side conversations as you’re digging in the mud together. Dirt is – I like to call it – like the eternal equalizer. We come from the dust and to dust we will return is what some of our beliefs are in Christianity. And when we play in the dirt, there’s something that humbles adults and it allows children to be side-by-side with adults and have some of those difficult conversations. So not only are they playing by actually growing their own food, seeing that process through, but they’re able to ask difficult questions and they’re able to grapple with doing something climate positive, doing something that’s good for the environment in the face of climate calamity.

Thank you so much, Konnie. How do you see the kids’ experiences in the garden really affecting them spiritually?

Yeah, that’s a great question. So on one level, I look at Hay and Nye’s three spiritual sensitivities. So that would be awareness-sensing, mystery-sensing, and value-sensing. I see awareness-sensing played out in, we do a lot of meditative sorts of exercises in the garden. I should clarify, I run one city garden on city land and one at a church in a congregational context. So when I talk about spirituality at the city garden, it is spiritual, but not religious. The church garden, we use explicit language from the Bible. So under awareness-sensing, I would say it helps children attune to the environment around them. We talk a lot about the five senses and sometimes other senses come into that as well, but what do you taste? What can you touch? What are the different sensory patterns that you’re noticing in the garden?

With mystery-sensing, if you’ve ever seen a child plant a seed and then watch it spring forth, there’s this just divine wonder that comes into their eyes as they see that they have done something and at the same time something miraculous is unfolding. The seed is bursting forth life. Sometimes we see it – we worked all the way from zero to age 18 – so sometimes we see babies in the garden who just lay on their backs and look at the sunlight because babies are attracted to light and kind of play with the leaves above them and the light. That’s kind of an example of mystery-sensing. And then the value-sensing, I would say the environmental consciousness that we’re trying to invoke and come alongside children with would be one of the major values. But also we talk about things like food equitability. Not everybody has good, organic, locally grown produce on their tables, and everything that we grow at the garden is given to local families.

It’s a no-holds-barred sort of process. We give whatever people would like and we just ask that they use everything that they take. That’s kind of our policy around food. So I see those sort of things developing on a more implicit level, particularly at the city garden. At the church garden, we have developed a full VBS or VBC (depending on where you’re from) camp curriculum around creation and around what it means to become co-creators with God and bear life together with God. And so it’s very explicit in the sense that we talk about creation and Genesis 1 versus Genesis 2.

We talk about God getting down on God’s hands and knees in the dirt and forming humans out of the dirt, and then calling Adam and Eve in the story to be fruitful and multiply passage. I would interpret that more as come with me and co-create, bear life in the world. And that’s not necessarily procreate, it’s co-create which I think is a pretty helpful distinction for children to be able to say, I’m actually doing something positive in the world by bearing life, by planting these seeds or by tending this plant that needs to be pruned. There are so many passages in the Bible about pruning and weeding and the weather events in different seasons that it’s actually ripe for playing in the garden with children.

Thank you, Konnie. I really appreciate that you both talk about this in ways that it could be seen from a faith perspective, particularly a Christian faith perspective, but also how eco-anxiety and more humanistic forms of spirituality really coexist well together too. And I know our listeners will appreciate both perspectives. Thank you.

Thank you.

Thank you, Konnie.



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