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 environment?
There are a number of ways, depending on your family’s interests and experiences. For example, your family may prefer birding to fishing, or canoeing rather than mushroom hunting. But, whatever your preferences, keeping the process simple is the key. The following guidelines will give you a good place to start.
Begin as soon as possible
Some people take their very young children on hiking, fishing or even camping trips. While some of you may be thinking, “Sure, I was only 4 months old on my first camping trip,” others are sure to question this strategy.
Environmental educators constantly evaluate the learning process in order to understand what’s developmentally appropriate for any given situation, group or individual. Parents and caregivers can do this as well. The best way to know what your child is ready for is to interact with him or her in your own yard as soon and as often as possible.
Young children may not yet be able to tell you what interests them. Still, by watching your baby’s reaction to the outdoors, you’ll get an idea of what he or she likes. Does he key in on bird sounds? Does she look intently at fall colors, or does she prefer jumping in a pile of leaves? How does he react to a caterpillar crawling on his hand? Observing your child in this way not only helps you understand how your child learns, the process provides opportunities to bond with your child.
Set no limits
Some parents seem to believe that every worthwhile outdoor experience must be hours (or even days) long. These activities generally include numerous pieces of equipment to be packed, unpacked, hauled, set up, taken down, repacked and… you get the picture. And that is just fine for them. I envy those who have the patience, time and resources to spend as they wish, but not everyone does.
Shorter outings can be just as beneficial. Take your child outside in your own backyard. For some youngsters, time spent outdoors should be kept short and sweet anyway. The key is that it takes only a few seconds for your child to feel the sunlight on her face, smell the locust tree blossoms or blow the dandelion seeds into your neighbor’s yard.
Of course, there are days we can’t spend outside. Having some “non-technological” items around the house can also provide a first-hand nature experience for the very young. Cardboard boxes or paper grocery bags can be cut, colored and used to transform the average preschooler into a box turtle. Foam insulation tubes, the kind that go around pipe, become insect “feelers” or antenna. Give your child an idea and encourage her imagination.
Think and relate like a child
Most adults have forgotten what it’s like to think as children. When young children learn, they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it; they don’t have the time. At this stage, energy for the learning process is focused all at once on physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.
No wonder your preschooler can wear you out. Respond accordingly. Allow your child to interpret the outdoors in his or her own way without your judgment. Of course you’ll want to keep your child safe and most of the lawn intact, but your child’s imagination usually needs only your guidance, not your direction.
For instance, my 4-year-old neighbor found a worm on the asphalt. She built a house for the worm using grass for the walls, a leaf for the roof, and a rock for the front yard. She went into great detail explaining that worms need to be comfortable and covered. (This is what she receives from her home.) I had to stop my “adult” mind from saying, “Worms are more comfortable when covered in dirt. In fact ….” Instead, I asked, “Where do worms live when we don’t build houses for them?”
By allowing your child to relate in his or her own way to the outdoors, however incorrect it may seem, you can accomplish at least three things. First, your child is gently encouraged to take another look at his or her theory on the subject at hand. Second, your youngster sees learning as a positive experience. And third, the natural world remains a positive place to be.
Think in terms of what you can do
Along with the idea that humans relate what they learn to what they already know, many educators and psychologists support a hands-on approach to learning called Piaget’s Constructivist Theory. Simply stated, young children “construct” knowledge by physically and mentally exploring their environment. If you subscribe to this theory, then you understand that your child will not fully appreciate her environment unless you allow her to be physical and use all five senses.
Some of you are probably thinking, “Are you crazy? What about poison ivy, venomous snakes, black widow spiders.” Those fears are reasonable, but they can be tempered by familiarizing yourself with the environment. The outdoor experience provides so many more opportunities for positive rather than negative interactions.
There are many learning resources available. The Missouri Department of Conservation maintains a Web site full of articles and information at www.missouriconservation.org. Free publications on fish, forest and wildlife resources native to Missouri are also available at nature centers and many Department offices. See page 1 for a listing of regional phone numbers.
Even better, visit a Department office, nature center or range on your own or for a program. Call your regional office or visit the Web site for local program offerings. There are interpretive and educational programs for all ages on a wide range of natural history and outdoor skills topics.
We’d love to help introduce your child to the outdoors and answer your questions. Or, when curious nature gets the best of your youngster and he impatiently asks, “What do you mean you don’t know?” we can help you answer his question.