Children & Nature

By Kristin Tubic (MAB Faculty / Guest Blogger)

When the child goes out, it is the world itself that offers itself to him. Let us take the child out to show him real things instead of making objects which represent ideas and closing them up in cupboards – Maria Montessori

On Valentine’s Day this year a bug landed on my pink sweater. I didn’t notice it but a child from my class did and warily cautioned me that it was there. I studied it more closely – It was about half an inch long, black, had six legs and wings. By this time a small group of children had gathered to look at the strange creature on my arm. It started to head towards my shoulder so I let it crawl onto my hand instead so the children could get a closer look. When I moved my hand down to their level there were a few gasps and the area around me got noticeably wider as many feet shuffled backwards. Only when the bug decided not to move again did small heads start poking closer to look. A few seconds later the bug suddenly flew up and away to a nearby light. Again there were scared gasps and one child even ran away from the area when the bug took flight.

I find that this is a common reaction among children. Such yells and gasps can be heard when a spider or stinkbug appears on the classroom floor. I often wonder how such young children can have a phobia of bugs – I think it should be the opposite way around – they should have a curiosity and interest. Is this phobia learned from parents or is it because many of these children have not spent enough time in nature?

Growing up in Australia many animals such as cockroaches, bats, frogs, geckos and spiders routinely found their way into our house. It was such a regular occurrence that sometimes we didn’t even both to escort them back to the outdoors.

In the classroom setting we will sometimes get the bug catcher out so the children can have a close up view of little critters without much fear. Other times we will get a cup and paper and simply let the animal go back into nature. We remind the children that all animals, no matter how small should be taken outside and not hurt in any way.

The wonderful season of spring is just around the corner. The beauty of flowers popping up from the soil and the new leaf buds on the trees make it a pretty awe inspiring time. I grew up in the northern part of Australia that had a rainy season (summer) and a dry season (winter). We never really celebrated the changing of the seasons because you really couldn’t tell when they stopped or started. We could swim in the ocean all year round, the trees never lost their leaves, no snow ever came, and even frost was a very rare event. Needless to say, the first time I experienced the four seasons was when a moved to a northern US state in 2001. So to me, as I suspect for many of the children, Spring is still a magical time.

Spring is a great time for you and your child or children to get out into the great outdoors. The challenge posed to you in this blog is to set aside at least one hour a week to let your children explore nature. This exploration can be unstructured or structured. It can be a nature walk close by to where you live, an exploration of a local park or stream, a hiking outing or simply spending time among the plants and bushes in your garden.

In unstructured exploration your job is to follow the child, not for the child to follow you or your agenda. See what they start looking at, touching or smelling. Equip them with a magnifying glass that they can hang around their neck. If your child is hesitant, you can make suggestions like, “I wonder where that ant is going? Let’s follow it.” If your child asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, be truthful and say something like, “You know what, I have no idea how long turtles can hold their breath underwater for, we can find out when we get home.” A simple question like this can, depending on the child’s interest and age, lead to a simple search on the Internet or a budding interest in ‘all things turtle’ at the library.

In a structured exploration you could let your child know that today we are going on a scavenger hunt to find certain things in nature – this could be a list you’ve made together, or for younger children pictures of what you plan to look for –such as an acorn, a maple seed, a pine cone, a large stick, spotting a cardinal etc.

Other ideas from structured exploration idea are:

– To bring a camera and try to find as many different leaf types as possible (or flowers, animals, seeds).

– Older children can bring a journal and sit in one place and describe in words or pictures what they are seeing.

– Bringing paper and crayons and seeing how many different types of rubbings you can find.

– Be silent in a natural area for 5 minutes and then talk about what you heard.

– Have a picnic in the park or near a stream.

– Make a small raft out of twigs and tall grass and watch it float down the stream.

– Go fruit or flower picking

Getting out into a natural setting is also a great way for children to enhance the information in their brains. A child who sees a nest in a book many come to think that a birds nest is two dimensional, brown and fluffy. Upon actually seeing one in real life and being allowed to touch it, their brain will reorganize itself to include words like prickly, made out of twigs and mud, and three dimensional. A child can see how big a nest is, whether it has a smell, what color it is and what it is made out of. The bottom line is a picture in a book can never replace the power of holding an object in real life.

Here at MAB we think of the outdoors as an extension of the classroom. Aside from the unstructured recess time there are many other ways the children get to experience the outdoors. In our class we like to do nature walks with magnifying glasses and baskets to collect natural objects. We then at a later time analyze and sort the objects, always returning them after we have finished studying them. Sometimes we bring a large blanket into the courtyard and look up at the clouds – watch their movements and shapes that are formed. We also observe if there is a breeze, if we can see butterflies or birds flying in formation. On a beautiful day many classes will bring a table or art easel outside so the children can work in the great outdoors. Scrubbing the exterior of the building, cutting the grass with scissors, weeding, and planting flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables in our garden beds are many other ways we incorporate the outdoors with education.

Some ending thoughts and ideas are to make sure you allow your child to be an explorer. Let them pick up an ant or poke their fingers in the stream. A fun thing to do is go for a walk in the rain and let your child know that today it is alright for them to splash in the puddles. At another time, allow them to walk barefoot so they can experience what it is like to feel the squishy mud between their toes and the slipperiness of the grass or the hardness of the rocks.

Children are fascinated by nature. We just have to make sure, as parents and educators that they have enough exposure to the wonderful greenery Northern Virginia has to offer.

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