We heard and saw many geese out in the fields and watched a flock take off. The view was so lovely, I had to stop for pictures with the bitter wind stinging my face.
Starting nature study with children feels a bit dangerous. You never know what you are going to see. What if the teacher cannot answer a question? What if there are things we have trouble identifying? Other than experts, who can really tell one fungus from another? Heading outdoors to study the world is humbling because we realize how little we know.
And that is okay. Children benefit from knowing that adults are life-long learners, too.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, observes,
More recent research has suggested time spent in more natural environments (whether it’s a park, a wilderness or a nature-based classroom or play space) stimulates the senses, improves the ability to learn, and helps students connect the dots of the world.... Children are more likely to invent their own games in green play spaces rather than on flat playgrounds or playing fields. Green play spaces also suit a wider array of students and promote social inclusion, regardless of gender, race, class, or intellectual ability. One study found that so-called at-risk students in week-long outdoor camp settings scored significantly better on science testing than in the typical classroom. At the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers have discovered that children as young as 5 show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they engaged with nature.
I have seen this in action on the trail we adopted last fall! Even the youngest child is eager to explore when given permission. Boys turn water hyacinth lilies into hats and trumpets. Girls get manicures with water hyacinth lily bulbs. Children claim castles in the woods. They climb branches to ride horses. They turn fallen trunks into benches and balance beams. When someone loses a shoe in the mud, they have to apply engineering to retrieve it without getting their own shoe stuck.
We document delightful finds in our nature notebooks. During our walks, I snap many pictures, and I am pleased with the resolution of a Lumix point-and-shoot camera—a Christmas gift. I love the detail of this spider web snapped on a dewy morning!
After we get home, Pamela chooses her favorite memory of the walk and illustrates it in her notebook—something durable of 65-lb. paper or better, for it will store years of memories. We use watercolor pencils, which we bought many years ago. After the drawing is complete, we add water sparingly—I say we because I keep my own notebook. We try to identify the item, if possible, and record the common name as well as the Latin name. Then, Pamela describes what she observed. We make no corrections because this notebook has many purposes: it documents what we saw as well as her progress in illustrating and writing. It builds a sense of seasonal changes and natural history. I do not extract lessons in drawing and language arts, which might rob her of the joy of keeping a nature notebook.
Pamela made entries on butterflies and moths for the first two walks. My favorite free resource for identifying these insects is Butterflies and Moths of North America. I upload pictures and someone responsible for our location identifies it for me. I keep an online record of every caterpillar, moth, and caterpillar captured in film. I have added several species not already identified for our county! Pamela put the cloudless sulfur butterfly and io moth caterpillar in her notebook.
October 26 was an exciting walk for us. When we finally reached the gravel road crossing the trail, we came upon a snake sunning itself. The reptile was all stretched out. We discouraged the children from touching it, even though we knew it to be harmless. Too many nonvenomous snake are easily confused with venomous ones. When the stroller came too close, the creature sidled away into the woods. And, then, we watched it climb vines and saplings. I mistakenly identified it as a garter snake —yes, my silly fear of the things prevents me from spending too much time in their company and I was glad I did not squeal. It turned out to be a rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus).
I could not identify her November selections. My old camera lacked any decent resolution, and cheetos-colored fungus was beyond me. While the word fungus came to Pamela readily, her challenges with word retrieval made it hard to recall moss and lichen. I supplied the terms to her. She wrote branch, instead of trunk—more vagaries of aphasia.
We would have never come across the lovely golden silk orb weaver (Nephila clavipes) had we not decided to walk the trail backwards. Starting at the end enabled us to see many things we had failed to see on prior walks. We went right under the web following a deer path to the water. She was quite lovely, and we all wished we had a cricket on hand to feed her!
And lest you think the size of these fungus is exaggerated, check out the photograph. The thing was the size of a soccer ball.
The first walk of the New Year startled us with an exciting find: a dead Eastern red swamp crayfish (Procambarus troglodytes) lying on the side of the trail, not far from the platform for observing migratory birds. The creature was in perfect condition, and it was ginormous! We all gathered around it and studied it carefully.
Pamela's drawing of the crayfish was absolutely stunning! I can hardly believe that being handed a pencil and paper made her tantrum when she was six years old. We wondered if we would ever see it again—and we did not! However, a friend of mine walked the trail with her husband the intervening Sunday and all that was left was obliterated bits and pieces of shell strewn on the ground. Pamela thinks an eagle might have eaten it.
Why? Well, last Friday, we were standing on that same platform for observing migrating birds and watched an American bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) fly across the field, heading toward us. The bird flew right over us into the woods. Later, we saw it soar above us closer to the tree line and heard its distinctive chatter call offered here at another one of my favorite sites for bird study. Pamela and I recited one of her favorite poems together ("The Eagle" by Alfred Lord Tennyson). As my friend Megan reminds us, nature has a magic that is deeper still and, when outdoors, poetry comes to mind. Since I had trouble spotting the eagle in my camera, I took no pictures so Pamela relied on her memory for this entry.
Then, I saw the most spectacular sight—and, unfortunately, everyone else was too far behind to enjoy it with me. I watched the bald eagle fly through the trees across the walkway pictured below. And, for a moment, I was memorized like Bilbo Baggins when the eagles rescued him and his unexpected company.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien