Nature Connection: Nature As Teacher

By: Mary Richmond

The author with a class at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary exploring the salt marsh habitat some years ago. COURTESY PHOTO

As local and visiting students start to return to school, it seems a good time to remind parents, teachers, grandparents, and friends of young people to include time in nature as part of the year’s curriculum, no matter what level or grade they’re in.

As someone who visited almost every classroom in grades ranging from kindergarten through middle school in every Cape town over a period of 25 years, I can attest that children love learning about nature. Things many adults know and take for granted are mysteries to children, even those in middle school grappling with social and societal issues. Children love mysteries and most of them easily fall in love with nature when given a chance.

Schools now focus more on the engineering and technological aspects of science rather than biology, ecology, or even earth science. Those of us who grew up in a different time may find it hard to believe that many students cannot distinguish between a reptile or amphibian, a spider or an insect, and even a bird or a mammal. An astounding number of young people think owls are mammals because the feathers on their feet look like fur. They also think turtles are amphibians or related to fish and whales because they swim in water. There’s often confusion about whales and dolphins, even sharks, and which family they belong in, fish or mammal.

Some teachers already include nature lessons in their classrooms, simply because they themselves have an interest. I’ve taught many a teacher workshop, however, and I can tell you firsthand that while some are very well informed, some fall into the same category as the first or sixth grader that thinks a caterpillar is a worm and that a snake is an invertebrate.

Many adults are ill informed about nature. Many are afraid of certain animals and pass their fears to their offspring. All of us who work in classrooms have heard horror stories concerning relatives of children murdering snakes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, and other animals for various reasons. Snakes in particular seem to find themselves in harm’s way, often meeting unnecessary and gruesome deaths. When I tell kids that we have no poisonous snakes on Cape Cod, some are shocked. They’ve been told all snakes are poisonous and must be killed on sight. After some of our nature sessions there must be some interesting conversations at certain dinner tables.

Anyone who has been in a classroom in recent years knows teachers are tireless workers, doing their best to serve the needs of all their students, many of whom need special attention, a translator, or a behavior specialist. Children come and go in classrooms all the time, often missing valuable information. They leave for reading help, behavior intervention, language classes, remedial help in math and science, and other reasons. Free breakfasts must be handed out to all who want them and then cleaned up. Recesses and lunch periods must be monitored and parent emails, phone calls, and texts must be attended to. Oh, and teachers are supposed to teach meaningful lessons as well as prepare their charges for endless testing.

So, when do I want these overworked teachers to give lessons on nature? How about just in daily conversations? When a child tells a story that makes them cringe, such as how an uncle cut a snake in half, how about telling them a little about the good snakes do. One needn’t say the child’s uncle is an idiot, but one can gently mention that snakes on Cape Cod aren’t dangerous and should simply be left alone. Read stories at story time about the natural world. Later, read books that also address ecology and life cycles. There are many being written these days, and they can open up interesting discussions that can spread across several subject areas.

I had a third grade teacher that asked us every Monday what birds or animals we had seen over the weekend. For a few minutes we shared stories of deer, squirrels, HUGE spiders, gulls that stole potato chips, and other simple things. She used those few minutes to tell us about plants and birds and animals that were common on Cape Cod and her classroom was filled with pictures and books about nature. It was only a few minutes, but it was informative as well as fun.

As parents or other close relatives or friends of young people, we can take them on walks, to a natural history museum or aquarium, and just generally introduce them to the simple pleasures of being out in nature. Most children will run and giggle and yell and skip and play swords with sticks, but that’s OK. Let them splash and dig and twirl. Having fun in nature is a good thing. Let them collect seashells and pinecones, seed pods and pretty stones. Look them up together when you get home, even if you know what they are. Let them do the discovering.

Probably the most important thing we can do to help nature these days is get more young people outdoors and interested in the world around them. The number of people who don’t understand where our oxygen comes from, never mind water, is not only astounding but alarming.

Lecturing, blaming, and shaming are never good ways to encourage learning, though. We can all be gentle teachers in the world, showing by our own examples how to respect nature and appreciate her diversity. Understanding that without nature we are nothing is a lesson we all should take to heart. If we don’t take heed soon, she may become like that cartoon principal that throws the kid against the wall to get his attention, and nobody wants that.