Living & Learning Science
|“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?”|
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
“Observation and appreciation
increase when you erase the boundaries created by classroom
walls and textbooks.”
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.
|“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.”|
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 necessary.
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.