Children: The Born Naturalists

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Photo courtesy Fotolia/kyslynskyy
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.

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.

Adventures In The Night

Children don’t necessarily take to trudging for miles with
“nothing to do” (grown-ups call it hiking). But add the
element of darkness and you have a different
experience — an adventure. The night is full of
mystery, of spooky rustlings in shadowy bushes and odd
twitterings in the treetops. Mix in starlight and
permission to stay up past bedtime, and what child could
resist?

Most back yards are perfect for exploring the
night — unless you’re surrounded by glaring
streetlights. Of course, if you happen to live near, or are
camping in, a state or national forest, so much the better.

Each of you should carry a flashlight, but first cover each
lens with red paper. The colored light will illuminate your
path but won’t startle nocturnal animals, most of which
cannot see color. Remember, though, that it’s the dark
you’re out to discover. Keep your flashlights off whenever
possible.

Quiet also is important. Most people, even children,
respond instinctively to the night’s hushed stillness by
moving quietly and speaking in whispers. There’s something
about the darkness that pricks up our senses,
too — some remnant of our primeval past as prey and
predator, perhaps.

Certainly, there’s plenty in the night to see, hear, smell
and touch. If you have a garden, watch for night crawlers
stretched from their holes like long, gluey fingers, each
straining for a leaf to drag into an earthy pantry. Ground
beetles and webless hunting spiders stalk among the tall
plant stems of meadows and lawns. Voles and white-footed
mice skitter through the leaf litter. Hungry bats scour the
skies for buggy meals.

One of my favorite night-stalking activities, especially
with youngsters, is moth baiting. Many moths and other
insects feed on fermenting tree sap or fruit. You and your
cohorts can attract such creatures by mixing a bait, or
moth “sugar,” approximating those natural food sources. Try
this trusty formula: 1 overripe banana (mashed), 2 ounces
of apple cider vinegar and a half pound of brown sugar.
Paint a half-page-size patch of this goo on trees, rocks or
fence posts before sundown, then return at night to check
out the patrons.

Also, of course, take time to look up. The big
dipper, Polaris, the Moon, shooting stars — there’s a whole
universe out there. Go ahead lie down on your backs and
take it in.

A Line And A Pole

Fish, frogs, gooey algae, splashing water, worms and bugs,
something huge tugging on your line — fishing is just
plain made for kids. That most grown-ups like it
too — well, that’s just the child in all of us coming
out to play. Nevermind that fishing teaches lessons in
conservation, aquatic life and food chains — fishing
is, first and foremost, flat-out fun.

Just grab a line and a pole (for about $15 you can pick up
a simple spin-cast reel and rod outfit, plus some hooks,
sinkers and worms) and head together for the nearest
fishing hole. Catching something is the only real
requirement. Farm ponds often are best, and most owners
will give permission if you’re looking to fish with a
youngster. A stocked commercial fishing lake is a good
first-trip choice, too.

What’s that — you haven’t done much fishing yourself?
You’re not sure you know enough to take your son or
daughter? That’s great: You get the added pleasure of
discovering fishing together. Just grab two lines and
poles — and maybe peruse a book on the basics
beforehand.

Get The Real Stuff

You should’ve seen my youngest son’s wide eyes when he
opened the Young Astronomer’s SuperPower Telescope ($250)
for his birthday. More importantly, you should’ve seen his
look of utter disappointment that night, when we set the
thing up and aimed it at the sky. At every touch the
plastic scope shook on its flimsy tripod like a
three-legged giraffe. Stars skittered about in the lens, no
more distinct than tiny fuzzy bouncing dots. Focusing was
impossible. Not even the moon came in clear.

I returned the “kid stuff” and for less money bought real
stuff: An honest tripod, a binoculars mount and a good pair
of 8×42 binoculars (8 refers to the magnification factor
and 42 is the millimeter diameter of the lens). Mounted on
the tripod, the binoculars pull in night-sky objects sharp
and bright. Stars and constellations multiply as if by
magic; the moon’s landscape jumps out like a relief map.
Plus, the binoculars alone are great for daytime bird- and
animal-watching (and general child-style spying).

Toy microscopes usually disappoint, too — and are not
nearly as much fun for a child as the real-stuff
substitute: a quality hand lens. The microscope stays home
and provides dim views of prepared slides. A hand lens
folds into its own protective case, pops in a pocket and
performs amazing transformations of bugs, rocks and almost
any other everyday object. Dandelion flowers sprout throngs
of yellow Dr. Seuss-like characters; moss magically blooms
into a wizard’s wilderness; tiny violets burst into ornate
bearded orchids; earthworms bristle with hairs. A good 10x
hand lens (higher magnification makes viewing difficult;
lower is less revealing) costs between $15 and
$40 — truly a bargain.

The real-stuff-not-kid-stuff principle applies to many
other nature- and outdoor-related items, too: tents,
sleeping bags, backpacks, butterfly nets you name it. Get
the real thing.


Time Alone

It happened one day when I walked outdoors and heard a
distant “Hey Dad, look at me!” in the wind. I peered upward
to see two small legs dangling from a thin branch high in a
wildly swaying tree. My parental heart leapt to my throat
and before I could stop myself the words “Get down from
there right now!” came flying out of my mouth.

Even as a teenager, I knew I was fortunate to have grown up
in a place where I could spend a lot of time outdoors. But
it wasn’t until that moment, as a father, that I came to
fully appreciate the role my parents had played by giving
me the freedom to discover nature on my own terms (within
reasonable limits, of course).

Today’s children are better educated in ecology and
environmental science than any previous generation. It’s
important knowledge. But nature is more than academic
fodder. The sun’s role in the carbon cycle is one thing;
its warmth on the back of your neck, another. One can be
taught; the other must be felt .

Occasionally, I’ll notice one of my sons off by himself,
sitting by our pond, watching dragonflies, or wandering in
our small woodlot. I’m tempted to go tell him something
about dragonflies, or to point out the goldenseal in the
woods. But I resist.

I know there’ll be many chances for him to learn
facts about the natural world. What children need
most, I think, is just the time and opportunity to
be in the outdoors — to feel the pulse of
nature, to exercise their connection to it on their own, no
help required. Given that sort of learning, they’ll do
fine. They are, after all, born naturalists. Just like me.
Just like you.

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