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Sense of Place 

A Spokane native, this writer and early childhood educator examines how relationships with nature begin in infancy

click to enlarge Author and Spokane native Ann Pelo.
  • Author and Spokane native Ann Pelo.

Dylan was Ann Pelo's primary companion that year. Days were spent splashing in rain puddles, picking blackberries along the shore of Lake Washington and watching ants crawl in and out of cracks on the sidewalk in a North Seattle neighborhood.

Dylan was just a baby, less than a year old.

But that year the 49-year-old author and educator spent as the infant girl's companion and caretaker — Pelo refers to it now as "the year with Dylan" — became the basis for her latest book, The Goodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identity in Young Children.

Several days before the Spokane native ventures across the Cascades to discuss the book at Auntie's Bookstore, Pelo explains what led to her to devote a year spending each day, rain or shine, exploring nature with Dylan.

Dylan isn't Pelo's daughter (the author is unmarried and doesn't have children), but the child of Pelo's close friend. Coinciding with the time of Dylan's birth, Pelo had made the choice to leave her job at Seattle's Hilltop Children's Center, where she'd worked for 16 years as a teacher and teacher mentor.

"I felt this increasingly strong pull to live more intimately with the Earth; to be in a more unbuffered relationship than working in Seattle and living on Capitol Hill," she says of the decision.

Pelo grew up in Spokane, graduating from Gonzaga Prep, then attending Whitman College in Walla Walla, where she found her career calling in social justice and early childhood education. The Goodness of Rain is her fifth book, written largely for an audience of fellow educators. Some of Pelo's first books on alternative early childhood education practices have incited critique, especially from those on the political right. She's named in Fox News pundit Bernard Goldberg's 2005 book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, landing the No. 51 spot on the anti-leftist list, which also includes Michael Moore, Gloria Steinem, Al Gore and Al Sharpton.

After Dylan's birth, her parents sought a one-on-one caregiver for their infant daughter while they worked. Pelo realized this was her ideal chance.

"The intent was to be outdoors every day, in part for my own way to live in an intimate relationship with the Earth, and wanting that for this baby," Pelo explains over the phone as she commutes on I-5 through the metro area.

She kept a journal — later the basis for the book — of her and Dylan's daily nature adventures, in which both she and the infant discovered what it meant to find a sense of place and belonging in their environment.

"The book contains stories of experiences with a young child, but as much it also contains stories of what it is to be an adult, and finding my own way into home in a little corner of the country where I felt resistance to making home," Pelo says.

Pelo's focus as an educator of both children and other teachers is developing activist traits in young children.

"By that I mean inviting children to notice and embrace difference, she explains. "Feeling empathy and solidarity with other people, and paying attention to what's fair and what's not fair and calling it out."

Her teaching beliefs are significantly influenced by the Reggio Emilia approach, developed in the Italian city of the same name, which centers on inquiry and collaborative learning between children, teachers and parents, as well as letting children have a voice in their own learning.

The Goodness of Rain focuses less on the more controversial tenets followed by Pelo and many other early childhood educators. Rather, it promotes using nature to develop, in Pelo's words, "habits of mind and heart" and engaging children more deeply with the places they visit and live, so those places become part of their identity. ♦

Ann Pelo • Thu, March 13, at 7 pm • Free • Auntie's Bookstore • 402 W. Main • auntiesbooks.com • 838-0206

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