Imagine a young naturalist leading her first night hike. Setting out on the overgrown path she wonders, “What will we find tonight? Glow worms? Orb weavers? Bats?”
The Cub Scouts and their families wonder also, for they’ve never experienced a hike like this one. Little do they know what waits in the wooded darkness at the end of the old maintenance road.
Then, as might be expected in darkened woods, there’s a strange noise.
“What was that?” a child’s voice asks, as the naturalist feels a small trembling hand reach for hers. She listens, but she cannot be sure. It was a peculiar sound, yet somehow vaguely familiar. She realizes that she hasn’t heard that sound since childhood.
“I’m not sure,” she says, “I believe it’s a….”
“What do you mean you’re not sure?” squeaks the alarmed Scout. “You’re the animal lady! You’re supposed to know everything!”
The parents’ laughter bursts into the air. And, looking at their boys’ curious expressions, I have to laugh too. “I believe that little ‘cheet…cheet’ was a flying squirrel,” I tell them. “Let’s see if we hear it again.” Unfortunately, we didn’t hear another sound from that squirrel, but there was plenty more to see and hear that night.
Looking back on that hike, and on other programs I’ve been involved with, I am reminded how children are naturally curious. Curiosity in the very young (and the young-at-heart) is what most often motivates learning. Through a variety of experiences, we make observations and seek answers to questions. These, in turn, help us relate to and interpret the world around us.
In fact, today’s technology is a direct reflection of our drive to learn about and interpret the natural world. There are exciting programs on cable and satellite TV with stations dedicated entirely to nature and science. The Internet provides access to huge stores of information from aardvarks to zebras. Libraries and book stores contain colorful, in-depth books geared for very young children.
While all of these sources support the learning process, this technology can cause the interpretive experience to take a back seat. Children learn so much about“the environment,” but they are much further removed from their own natural environment than they’ve ever been. Building mud pies in the backyard and examining the creatures found there is a less-common pastime these days.
So, in this fast-paced and technological world, how do we provide our children with first-hand experiences that will help them understand their own