An article in Life Learning Magazine by Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko
entitled “Learning Love of the Natural
World” prompted me to pull off the bookshelf my well worn copy of
Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder. Carson, though childless,
was most certainly a committed unschooler (though the label was coined
well after her death.) The book tells the story of Rachel, her nephew
Roger, and their experiences together in the natural world. With great
forethought, she provided opportunities for learning to take place,
avoided lecturing or teaching, and waited for Roger’s questions to
trigger discussion or observation. She ignored conventional wisdom about
children’s bedtimes or the dangers of bad weather in the interest of
memorable experiences and reveled in the joy of watching a beloved child
experience a sense of wonder.
Far less well known than Carson’s environmental
wake-up call Silent Spring, this brief book about the beauty of
experiencing the natural world with a child was a favorite long before I
became a parent. With the arrival of our daughter Rebekah, it became an
inspiration for our family’s exploration of the world around us. Using
Rachel’s and Roger’s experiences on the coast of Maine as a marvelous
example, we tailored the idea to our suburban Philadelphia setting.
Besides having fun, we hoped Rebekah would learn about, learn to love
and, ultimately, learn to protect her world.
We believed that these goals would be better met
by being in the natural world than by being in the classroom.
Observation and appreciation increase when you erase the boundaries
created by classroom walls and textbooks. A picture of an owl or a
red-tailed hawk pales when compared to the creature in the flesh, its
soaring or swooping flight path, its call to a mate, or the stillness of
other creatures in its presence. A discussion of the social organization
of the insect cannot capture the experience of witnessing a single ant
dragging home a larger insect or another injured ant, or moving an egg
case to safety. Can the textbook convey the excitement when adult and
child must retreat hastily to avoid the soldier ants’ attack on toes
that pose a threat to the colony?
In our approach to learning, observations of flora, fauna or phenomena
were usually at the core of an activity. Often, ordinary activities were
infused with a sense of the “special event” just by heightening the
connection to nature. A walk through the neighborhood could be a hunt
for signs of spring or autumn, a leaf collecting excursion, an attempt
to track down the owl calling in the darkness or a flashlight hunt for
the amphibian or insect causing a din at night. One of our favorite
regular outings was inspired by a book called Walk When the Moon Is
Each month, we would await the full moon
and then take a walk through the neighborhood. Sometimes this meant
ignoring the usual bedtime hour, but our reward was the sparkling snow
cover in the winter, the heady scent of wisteria or lilac in the spring,
the hordes of fireflies performing a soundless light show or the
cacophony of autumn’s nocturnal insects.
Our garden was a window to the world of plants
and animals. We built a sandbox extension to the garden as soon as
Rebekah learned not to ingest sand. From early planting to harvest time,
she had what amounted to a front row seat. When we turned the soil, she
kept an eye out for earthworm “families” who needed a light blanket of
soil to protect them because they helped keep our garden healthy. She
used her sandbox watering can to water the plants and had her own
child-sized tools for pitching in with the gardening. At an early age,
she learned to find the tender peas and eat them from the vine. Soon we
gave her a quadrant of the garden, which had her pouring over the seed
catalogs choosing what to plant.
By age 10 or 11, Rebekah was assigned the task of
testing the garden soil for ph and mineral content using a kit we had
purchased. This whole process, from digging in the sand with a tiny
shovel to determining the mineral needs of the garden, was a natural
progression of playing and watching and doing. Along the way, she
learned about the good guys like the praying mantis “babies” hatched
from an egg case we found on a nature walk, and she witnessed the work
of groundhogs and deer for whom we reluctantly provided both food and
Blessed with a creek that flows through our
property, we have a natural attraction for both children and wildlife.
We have never used chemicals on our lawn, so the yard is a magnet for
birds fleeing the barren wastes of neighbors’ properties, which have
been sprayed with toxic herbicides and/or pesticides. Even a wild turkey
took up residence on our two-acre lot one winter. His passion for
birdseed enabled us to entice him to come running at the sound of the
rattling metal lid of the feeder. We could kneel inside the kitchen
sliding door and watch Frank (short for Benjamin Franklin) scratch for
seed just two feet away.
The stream was the source of other wonders. Small
fish, crayfish, water striders, snails, insect larvae, frogs, toads,
dragonflies, nesting wood ducks, and snakes (non-poisonous in our part
of the state) populated the watershed in the warm months.
Raccoons and deer left their paw prints in the
sediment from which we made plaster casts. Nets and sets of children’s
rubber boots in an array of sizes were always on hand to outfit Rebekah
and her friends for stream exploration. Nearby were a bucket of fresh
stream water and a terrarium of moss, soil, sand, and driftwood, which
served as temporary habitats for closer observation. Hours of “play”
along the stream involved stalking, collecting, observing, and always
the safe release of the critter in the same place that it was caught.
Occasionally, the microscope would be set up so that we could examine
smaller wonders like the minute creatures from the stagnant pools. All
creatures were viewed as honored guests rather than lab specimens.
Interesting books supplemented our outdoor
adventures and opened doors of exploration I suspect few school children
ever experience. For example, they may learn the chemical reaction that
causes the flash of light in a firefly, but few learn the language of
light that enabled us to sit in the yard at dusk with small flashlights
and, using the code of our native “lightning bug,” attract the male to
our hands. The biology class may dissect frogs but miss the thrill of
catching a frog and “hypnotizing it” to stillness by stroking its belly.
The segment of the curriculum that mentions bats may speak of sonar but
the student may never stand in an open field at dusk, and tossing a
small pebble high into the air ahead of an approaching bat, send it
diving toward the ground in pursuit of the pseudo-insect.
These activities may seem frivolous compared to
serious study, but reading about a bat’s sonar does not have the same
impact as seeing the creature’s erratic flight pattern suddenly zero in
on the airborne pebble and then follow it plunging to near the ground.
As Rebekah grew, our nature adventures expanded
beyond our neighborhood. Flexibility of schedule allowed for
spontaneity, best exemplified by one of our most memorable adventures.
When a November weather report promised blue skies and soaring
temperatures, we gathered books, art materials, nets, reference
materials about sea life and beach combing, as well as a picnic, and
headed to the shore. By 11 a.m., we were installed on a virtually empty
beach. We took a long walk, beachcombing as we went. We caught small
crabs and fish, and found a starfish in the shallows. Migrating birds
captured our attention when we weren’t reading or writing for pleasure.
The art materials came out for some sketching, which justified long
periods of staring at the scenery. We were not beach bums, but rather
nature buffs, making the most of that marvelous gift of a day.
Textbooks found their way into the house, but
Rebekah preferred “real books” written by people doing science. But even
these books couldn’t ignite that precious sense of wonder as well as a
trip to Hawk Mountain for the annual migration of birds of prey; or a
pilgrimage to Bombay Hook in Delaware to see 20,000 Snow Geese
simultaneously rocketing from the marsh into the blue sky, their beating
wings sounding like the roar of a jet engine; or a late night blanket
party with friends to view the annual Pleiades Meteor Shower or any
lunar eclipse; or our jaunt to Swarthmore College every April to picnic
amidst masses of pink and white Magnolia blossoms; or venturing into a
cave to see firsthand the wonders water and mineral create. Such
experiences, this integral relationship with the greater world around
her, ultimately made the textbooks more meaningful for Rebekah, but less
You may wonder if, after all those years of being
immersed in the world of nature, Rebekah developed that relationship
with her environment that Rachel Carson wrote about. Well, she has a
keen sense of responsibility for the environment, even interning at a
local land conservation organization where she has helped to study and
improve the watershed in which we live. At this time, she is not
pursuing a career in science, but she also doesn’t break the world down
into school curriculum categories. The fact that she is studying the
Classics and writing does not make her “not a scientist.” She has a
sense of connection and a sense of wonder that will make her a lifelong
environmentalist and scientist.
Rachel Carson confirmed that on the last
page of The Sense of Wonder when she wrote, “The lasting
pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for
scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the
influence of earth, sea, and sky, and their amazing life.”
In a previous life, Sid Baglini
worked in adult and child education. She and husband Norm have three
daughters; at the time this article was first published in 2004, they
were two “30-somethings” who went to school and a 17-year-old who never
did until she started college. Now, she and Norm are nurturing their
sense of wonder with grandkids.