Many adults don’t know that a robin is a robin and not a sparrow. And why does that matter? Because when you learn the name of something, and you learn a few details about that thing, then perhaps you begin to care a little more. The name is a pointer that brings the living thing forward from its matrix. And it’s here that caution in teaching is necessary. Don’t pull things out too far from their homes. Because their homes are what make them. And they make their homes. The chipmunk eats the heavy shelf fungus, and then its droppings feed the soil that feeds the Douglas fir whose seeds feed that same chipmunk. So I have to be careful when bringing children to an outdoor “nature study”. Because nature is their home too.
I am taking a class of nine year olds on a field trip (we now refer to these outings as “field studies” on consent forms, thus deadening all the possibilities that the wonderful word “trip” conjures up). So, for today’s field study we will learn about the urban forest. We will walk to a local park with dense stands of mature trees, nooks and crannies, big rocks and brambles, a very active duck pond, a little stream and a meadow. I have pictures, samples, handouts. I have packed hand lenses and binoculars and bird and plant identification guides. The children will first sit in a circle to receive their lesson, to engage in a lively and educational discussion, and then set out in carefully chosen small groups to investigate and identify the items that I have put on list for each group. They are not to disturb or collect any samples.
Here is what happens:
As soon as we leave the sidewalk we cross an invisible threshold that says “RUN!” They spread out across the meadow, disappear into the trees, scream, trip, laugh. They are like a splash of daisies that pop up overnight on a Springtime field. You simply cannot gather them in again. The birds I have carefully written question sheets about fly up to the highest tree branches as the children storm their hiding places. The mosses I scouted out yesterday are trampled under racing sneakers.
But I need a written record! I need drawings! I need models! – some kind of physical evidence of the children’s learning! (in educational writing these offerings are known as artifacts and they are the proof that I have done all that I can to educate, to open eyes, to mold lives. )This is serious business. And I am the archeologist. How will they ever understand the value, the inherent beauty, the connection that they have with this beautiful place if I don’t show it to them?
In my heart I know that’s really all a bunch of nonsense. Kids learn about nature by being out in it. A lot. Of course they go nuts when released on a special field trip. The contrast between the daily routine of timetables, seating plans, the countdown to recess, to lunch, to three o’clock and the open sky outside is too much. I don’t like it one bit either. I want to be outside. I want to build treeforts.
And today, if I can just put the teacher role aside, I want to watch children find their own way. Let their curiosity be whetted first by actually entering bodily into this world of dirt and bark and insects. They are impatient for it – there’s an urgency that the fresh air, the lack of walls, the peculiar new sensations has sparked. Their brains have come alive in the most disorderly and wonderful way. Question sheets and fact collecting must wait. Even the naming of things.