By The Numbers
Ten kids ages seven to nine, two teachers, two dogs, and one 12-passenger dually van, “Big Bertha”, ride out into the local wilds every day for a week, spending 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. hiking, wading, swimming, catching, identifying and enjoying nature to the fullest.
This year the record for most species (plant, animal, and even fossil) identified was 104. 104! (The other camp “only” got 87.) Sure, there were thousands more that we could have looked up, but this wasn’t a BioBlitz, these identifications came from the things kids noticed that they wanted to look up.
Lessons Abound All Around
There is so much to be learned and taught in nature, but the teaching often requires only the direction of attention toward something that Mama Nature will perfectly illustrate and channel into the child’s brain through some fantastic magic by which we all gain a “sense” of things. These are a few that I can put into words:
- Look! No, really look. – Observation skills are paramount in nature. Since humans are such visual creatures, we practice looking closely and noticing detail, whether it’s an edge, a texture, a color, the placement of a fin, the shape of a wing, the pattern of scales, or the number of legs. When you look closely, the opportunity to be amazed grows by orders of magnitude.
- Are you listening? (And smelling, and feeling, and tasting?) – We use all five senses to observe nature, knowing not just by the look of things, but, for instance, black birch trees by the spicy wintergreen smell of a snapped twig, an Eastern Towhee by it’s “Drink your tea-ee-ee-ee-ee” song, or the presence of microscopic diatoms by the extreme slipperiness of the rocks in the creek.
Sometimes we have to refrain from using some senses, such as learning not to touch poison ivy and never eating an unidentified mushroom or plant.
- Nature does not want to hurt you. – Everything in nature is just trying to go about its life, preferably without getting eaten too soon to create the next generation. We are the big, clumsy, scary ones that often cause a fight-or-flight reaction in animals. Don’t want to get stung? Don’t step on or poke the bee. Be careful where you put your hands and feet; look first. We are not afraid in nature, we are aware. We can be curious and cautious at the same time. For instance, we learned that bright colors (red, orange, yellow, and black among the insects) and patterns (the white and black of a skunk) in nature are often warning signs to predators: “Try to eat me and you’ll be sorry!”
- Superlatives are appropriate. – Nature is awesome. Recognizing that fact, out loud, inspires greater learning about and deeper respect for nature. One of the very few rules of the camp was “If you find something cool, show Ms. Dee!” The kids would shout “Rule 4!” and I would come straight over to see whatever insect they’d caught or wildflower they found or the shocking size of the crayfish in the net. Nomatter how many times I may have observed that species before, there’s always something new to notice, something cool/neat/awesome/interesting/intriguing/fantastic/amazing/incredible to make note of and discuss.
- Nature is everywhere. – Whatever we learn out in the “wilderness” areas also applies in our back yards, school yards, driveways, parking lots, towns, and farms. Once the sense of nature gets inside you, it’s a lasting framework for understanding that never fails.
I could go on and on (and on and on) about the student-directed learning opportunities in nature, and chances are that throughout the life of this blog, I will. For now, though, I’d rather take the time to direct you to some of the great places we went – check out the links below:
- The Gateway Trail (parking at Heritage Park)
- Poverty Creek Trail (parking at Pandapas Pond)
- Poverty Creek (park at and access through camping area)
- Craig Creek (parking at Caldwell Fields)
- The Keffer Oak (accessible via the Appalachian Trail – you can hear an Eastern Towhee singing in the background at the end of this video)
- The New River (find your own access point, ours was on private property, lucky us)
- Dismal Falls (see previous post)