Years ago, when my husband still watched football, he wanted me to enjoy watching with him. I didn’t mind as long as I was cleaning up or working on a craft project or something, because the sound of the game was enjoyable. Listening to the cheering crowds and announcers is just part of everything that is “Autumn” to me, along with changing leaves, crisp sunny days, apples, and the smell of woodsmoke. But I couldn’t focus on football games at all because all of the running, tackling, yards and penalties didn’t mean much to me. I would watch the screen, only to discover that I hadn’t really been watching, and was only daydreaming. My husband patiently explained the fundamentals and I watched the replays with some interest, but it wasn’t until he started telling me about the players that I really paid attention. It wasn’t until I felt like I knew the people wearing those uniforms that their play really became interesting. This isn’t just a male/female difference either, because obviously my husband already knew the stories about the players. He knew about the coaches, the rivalries, and the histories of his favorite teams.
Learning begins with attention, and attention begins with connection. When we make connections with people, they become more interesting. The same goes for anything really – cars, buildings, gardens, animals – you name it. That’s one of the reasons that reading a great book can launch an interest that you never had before. I was never interested in slime mold until I read The Way Life Works by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodsen, but now I can hardly wait to see a slime mold.
Little kids seem capable of forming personal connections with anything. They will watch, touch, smell, and play with everything they can get their hands on. This of course is why they are such excellent learners. Turn them loose in a field and they will find all kinds of things. “Nature study” comes naturally to them.
The problem is when kids get a little older, and maybe they have lost their genius for connections. Point them to a field and they might say,”Why? There’s nothing out there.” It may be pretty to look at or a good place to play a game, but other than that, why bother? It’s like me watching a football game. We need to know who is playing. What’s at stake? Where are the rivalries? What amazing skills and quirks are there to see? Once we’ve made those connections, interest tends to follow.
So if we want kids to get outside and appreciate nature, it really helps to have someone who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic tell us stories about the players. Every tree, spider, salamander, and stinging nettle has a story to tell. Volunteers and guides from Nature Centers can be wonderful resources. My daughter took a weekly class last year that met every Monday at a mountain lake. The guides took them on nice slow walks looking for animal tracks, identifying plants, and learning about wilderness orientation and survival. My daughter LOVED it, as did most of the other kids.
In the absence of real live guides, there are always books to captivate interest. Some of our favorites are the books by Jim Arnosky, especially his “Crinkleroot’s Guides.”
Unfortunately, I think these guides are out-of-print but you might be able to find them used or at the library. You will probably find A LOT of books at the library though about various nature topics. Just let your kids pick out whatever appeals to them.
If you would like to brush up on activities and background stories yourself before heading out on nature walks with the kids, try the classic “Handbook of Nature Study” by Anna Comstock. Hold out for an original version though – don’t get a cheap reprint. I found mine at a wonderful used book store. This delightful (and heavy) book is not necessarily meant to read to kids, but for YOU to read so you will have some understanding of what hidden stories lurk under rocks and forest pools.
I also used a neat series of books by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac that used Native American stories to help kids find connections with plants, animals, rocks, and water.
Another great resource these days is videos. Have you ever seen “The Secret Life of Plants” or “Life in the Undergrowth?” Seriously, those movies will pull the rug out from everything you thought you knew about plants and insects. Check out what is available in your library and online.
Whatever resources you use to find the stories behind nature, be sure to get outside with your kids to make discoveries on your own. Take your time. If your kids want to race around and climb trees, that’s fine. Wait until they are tired out before settling in to really look at things. Let them do the discovering, but be prepared to look at everything they will want to show you, and perhaps answer a few questions. But don’t turn it into a science lesson. Think of it as storytelling, and getting to know our wild neighbors. Even your most jaded, non-nature loving kids will find it hard to resist a hermit crab after reading “Pagoo” by Holling C. Holling; just like I found it hard to resist watching football after hearing all about Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and the rest.
It’s all about making personal connections, and feeling some empathy or kinship with whatever it is we are trying to learn.