Children: The Born Naturalists

Fortunately for parents, one truth remains: All children are born naturalists. Wonder and curiosity come installed.

| April/May 2004

My mother always knew where to look for me on windy days or just before a sudden storm, when restless gusts stirred the leafy treetops to a green froth and sent birds in the darkening sky winging for shelter. She'd step out on the porch and call to me in my high, hidden perch amid the wildly swaying topmost branches of the maple near our garage. "Better come down now," she'd holler, "before one of those branches breaks." Then she'd go back indoors, both of us knowing full well that nothing less than lightning, hard rain or dinner time would prompt my descent.

I loved to ride the wind up there, my feet braced against creaking limbs, my back to the tree's trunk lurching and rolling like a ship's mast above tossing seas, the leaves all around flapping and fidgeting, hanging on by their stems for dear life. I loved the power and danger and beauty of it: the heady height, the dizzying motion, the push-pull force of wind, the sure answering strength of limber living tree, the smell of green leaf flesh and newborn air.

I'm speaking not just of childhood memories, but of moments in the making of the love for nature that runs bone-deep in me. There are many more memories I could relate: of fishing in the wide, slickshale creek behind our house; of countless days spent wandering the rolling fields of my grandparents' farm; of pheasants bursting by the dozen from hedgerows; of playing hide-and-seek in towering forests of sweet corn; of crunch-crunch-crunching across acres of iceglazed, sunlight-bejeweled snow.

This was my childhood and — I'm certain — the reason why I feel such a sustaining connection to the outdoor world. It's also, I suppose, why I feel so compelled to instill the same bond with nature in my own children.

That's easier said than done. Times, after all, have changed. Far fewer children are growing up rural, like I did. It's often not the outdoors but the indoors that defines their environment. And speaking of the environment: Isn't that something you learn about in school, along with math and social studies?

Fortunately for parents, one truth remains: All children are born naturalists. Wonder and curiosity come installed. Just look in the eyes of any youngster watching a butterfly or holding a lightning bug. See? The challenge isn't so much to teach children about the natural world, but to find ways — despite school activities, video games and the other distractions of youth — to nurture and sustain the instinctive connections they already carry. Here are some ideas that have helped me in that pursuit. Perhaps you'll find them useful for your own born naturalists.

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