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Living and Learning Science

Living & Learning Science
By Sidne Baglini

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 Full.

Each month, we would await the full moon and then take a walk through the neighborhood. 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 given 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 lodging.

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 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.

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