Friday, August 5, 2011

How to Raise a Naturalist (or a Learner). . .

I started to write about homeschooling high schoolers (in response to a question), and I just couldn't get past saying that, for us, high school is merely an extension of the early years. It's an extension of an atmosphere of learning and joy and exploring God's amazing and interesting world and the things that man has done on it, to it, and with it. Nature, art, music, literature, culture, history--there's so much that is interesting, and I really believe that God put it into us to tend toward certain areas of interest. He also gave us abilities, talents, and gifts to use and develop. It is our privilege and our responsibility to learn and develop in the way God made us.This focus is what guided the education of my family, and it started with the parents.

I'm sure this is semi-clear already from other things I've posted here and there (High Desert Home), but I wanted to post this before going on about high school. This is the kind of family learning life that led us along and made the kids so interested in so much.

What I'm posting below is a paper I turned in for a writing class last year. We were assigned a personal essay about the environment, and being who I am, I gave mine an educational spin. My question was how do we raise an evironmentalist? I had to put it in those terms for the paper, but I'm really asking how we raise a naturalist or one who loves God's creation. My philosophy of why that is important goes way beyond the bounds of this paper to encompass spiritual purposes, but, for the sake of my class, I had to work within the assigment. Still, I think you can get a glimpse of the kind of spirit and parental involvement I think is important in education. And, after posting this, I think I can go on with the high school post. Because the spirit of learning in this paper is the spirit of learning in my home in regard to everything. And it is the extension of this atmosphere through high school that kept our learning lives so much fun. More soon. . .

Sorry it's so long, but I hope it's readable! The pictures were taken from my High Desert Home blog.
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My kids grew up in nature. Their father was an amateur entomologist who spent hours at his desk meticulously pinning beetles and butterflies to his insect mounting boards. He enlisted the kids in his bug-capturing campaigns, and they raced exuberantly around the property swinging butterfly nets through the air. A grey, papery (vacated) hornet’s nest hung from the family room ceiling above a large terrarium where stick bugs crawled, camouflaged, across green blackberry vines. Crickets chirped happily inside our house at night in their carefully constructed habitat, while museum beetles stripped a frog carcass clean to the bones in a tightly-sealed glass case next to the crickets. Collections of rocks, shells, nests, pressed flowers, and whatever other interesting things we found outdoors sat everywhere.

The kids explored tide pools at the beach, poked in the dirt, hiked through lava fields, crawled through caves, and followed animal tracks around our property. Summer nights, we lay on a blanket in the grass to wonder together at the heavens, brilliantly illuminated in the darkness of our high desert country sky. We all marveled as we observed the delicate intricacy of snowflakes under the microscope. Birdfeeders and nesting boxes were hammered together to feed and house our feathered friends. And the kids created illustrated nature journals as well as beautifully annotated photo-records of particular nature experiences.

Wherever our family was, we explored the natural world, but mostly we explored our own property—sometimes alone, and sometimes together. We had no agenda—we simply pursued nature because it was interesting and beautiful, and we grew to love observing life on our property as it changed through the seasons. We were oblivious to the fact that research was mounting to reveal this type of unstructured, direct experience with nature as just about ideal for creating young naturalists—young naturalists whose love for their own little corner of the world will slowly expand to encompass the larger world and environment.

I’m convinced that the didactic attempt by many environmentalists, parents, and educators to develop an ecological-conscience in our children is often misguided. I say it is love that is the key to wise action, just as Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum expressed in a 1968 speech: “In the end we will conserve only what we love. . .”

Nurturing love for the natural world requires no special knowledge or equipment or even a home with museum beetles and nature collections. But a would-be naturalist does need a particular nearby place outdoors to explore—even if it’s just a ditch. Yale-educated ecologist and award-winning natural historian Robert Michael Pyle writes in The Thunder Tree: “It is through close and intimate contact with a particular patch of ground that we learn to respond to the earth, to see that it really matters. Everybody has a ditch—or ought to. For only the ditches—and the fields, the woods, and the ravines—can teach us to care enough for all the land” (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).

The type of exploratory play outdoors that Pyle promotes is just what Richard Louv, author of critically-applauded Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, says is missing from the lives of modern children.” Louv claims that while some children still find wonder in nature, he’s heard many variations of a comment made by one fourth-grader he interviewed: “I like to play indoors. . . ‘cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are” (Algonquin, 2008).

This increasing lack of outdoor enthusiasm by children worries environmentalists because they fear kids will lose touch with the importance of preserving the health of our planet. To counteract the “nature deficit” of children and create environmental awareness, education is brought to the rescue.

But just how can we teach technology-immersed children about the environment when it seems many of them really don’t want to go outside? Since the sophistication and appeal of information and communication-based technologies seem to compel kids to use them, why not turn these technologies to our advantage? And why not embrace the often-stunning quality of nature films, zoos, and museums as a means of educating our children ecologically? Indeed, these are avenues that educators have taken, but according to some ecologists and researchers, there’s a problem. It isn’t reality.

Stephen Kellert of Yale’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Studies writes in Children and Nature (an MIT-published, research-based collection of essays) that vicarious experiences with nature, while stimulating, “do not substitute developmentally for more ordinary and everyday encounters with the natural world,” adding that “a worrisome feature of contemporary science is that many children increasingly experience nature through the imagined and exotic rather than through the actual and local” (MIT Press, 2002). Or as John Senior, classicist and author of The Restoration of Christian Culture put it, “Children need direct, everyday experiences of fields, forests, streams, lakes, oceans, grass and ground. . . A sixty foot whale splashing across nineteen inches of your living room while you sip your Coca Cola is not reality” (Roman Catholic Books, 1983).

But in The Thunder Tree, Pyle fondly recalls childhood excursions to his city’s natural history museum and credits the place for nurturing his love for nature and ecology. Isn’t this valid support for making museums (or zoos or gardens or even citizen-scientist projects with real scientists) part of a school’s curriculum? While I do think these visits can be valuable, it’s important to recognize that Pyle explored the museum alone, on his own terms, with no one guiding his thoughts or shuttling him along to the next exhibit. Pyle’s self-directed, long, solitary hours in the museum allowed him to obsess over butterflies (butterflies eventually became his life-work)—to observe, think, and wonder—in his own time and way. It’s also important to remember that Pyle deemed direct, intimate experience with nature (a ditch of one’s own) to be the fundamental need of a child-naturalist.

And not only should a child’s experience with nature be direct, but its primary work should be to provide an aesthetic experience that captures a child’s heart and imagination long before he pursues academic study of it. Pioneer of modern environmentalism Rachel Carson affirms this in A Sense of Wonder—her lovely book about sharing the beauties of nature with our children. “It is not half so important to know as to feel,” she writes, “[and] once the emotions have been aroused--a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration, or love—then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning” (Harper & Row, 1956).

This is an inspiring idea, but educators who want to teach nature or environmental lessons don’t always have the luxury of working with children who have established the positive emotional connection to nature that lays the groundwork for academic learning. It may be this lack of a positive emotional connection that has led to a tendency—intended or unintended--to appeal to the negative emotions of fear and worry. This, it turns out, has not only been ineffective for developing empathy or an ecological-conscience, but it appears to be counterproductive.

In her paper “Overcoming Ecophobia,” Diane McKnight, professor of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering at University of Colorado, warns of the profound negative impact stories of ecological doom can have on children: “I remember finding my young daughter in tears one morning, because she believed that there was only one living Galapagos tortoise; she explained to me that when that one died, there would be none left” (Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, August 2010,

McKnight continues: “As pointed out by Sobel (1996) in his book Beyond Ecophobia, there is evidence that the use of fear appeals may backfire with elementary-age children, creating barriers to development of environmental empathy. Sobel likens ‘ecophobia’ to ‘math phobia’, which can result from ‘too much abstraction, too early.’”

Perhaps we should emulate the nurturing manner of the mother of venerated primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall, who didn’t blanch when young Jane took a bunch of earthworms to bed with her and put them under her pillow; or the mother of naturalist-writer Gerald Durrell, who barely batted an eye when the pelicans he ordered (unbeknownst to her) chased her round the garage or when this same son accidentally let loose a whole matchbox full of scorpions at the family dinner table; or even my husband’s mother, who screamed every time his flying squirrel swooped at her on its flight from one family room curtain rod to another yet never required the squirrel’s removal from the house

The presence of a positive adult can encourage a budding naturalist and cultivate what Rachel Carson calls “a child’s inborn sense of wonder.” To keep this sense alive,” she writes, “(the child) needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

But it’s not just young children who need this. Stephen Kellert urges ensuring that older children experience nature directly, too, because “contact with the natural world, especially during middle childhood [defined by Kellert as up to age 12], occupies a surprisingly important place in a child’s emotional responsiveness and receptivity.” And it is only after this emotional connection is made that a child is ready for more abstract knowledge.

Again, to experience nature directly, there’s no need to hike through the drizzle of a rainforest, spot a Keel-billed Toucan in Belize, or follow elephants to their watering hole on a Namibian safari, unless, of course, you want to. Nothing nurtures a naturalist more than a particular patch of ground near his own home, whether that is in the country or at a park in the city, in Corfu or Klamath Falls. A child needs a place to explore, to turn over rocks, to poke at the dirt, and to watch the antics of ground squirrels without anyone turning his observation into a science lesson. He needs time and space in nature to think long and “wonder why.”

I’m convinced Robert Pyle has it right when he claims, “I believe that one of the greatest causes of the ecological crisis is the state of personal alienation from nature in which many of us live.” Intimacy with nature is essential for the health and well-being of a child, and it is essential for the health and well-being of our planet because it is a child’s joyful, direct experience with nature that will make him love the world enough to eventually want to protect it.

This is how an environmentalist is really made.


  1. this. is an excellent paper!! I trust you received an A :-) I look forward to your next post ~ though I haven't asked; I've wondered....

  2. I love your use of quotes in this essay. It can be difficult to find and use quotes effectively, without having them take over the writing, but you've done it.

    And of course, I love the point. It's pure "Susan." ;-)

  3. Good Morning Dear Susan...found one of your favorite gals here. Just for fun sharing with you.

  4. Thank you, Susan! I've been checking back and checking back, waiting for this post....and the next one too! It is very good. You don't think it's too late for my 13 and 14 year old "town-kids" son and daughter to develop these interests, do you? We have gone out for nature walks, but never as much as I wanted. I read once about a mom who took her children out somewhere and said, "Entertain yourselves for the next four hours!" It seemed like a good idea, but we never got around to it. And I always feel like they aren't noticing the things I wish they would, but I guess I just have to SQUELCH that thought! Right? My son, in particular has the plugged-in interests, coupled with sports--though more virtual than the real thing since there aren't neighbor kids to play like we did growing up. And though I put limits on it, it still DISTURBS me greatly!

    Well, I am looking forward with bated breath to your next post. And I so appreciate your taking the time to share the wisdom you have with me and a host of others. Thank you so very much.


  5. Great article. One year I taught one class of science since the school had a scheduling conflict and I was the new hire. Most middle school science classes are taught with textbook (reading and writing out answers to the questions at the end of a section)and maybe a science fair project at the end of the year. What a turn off it was for the kids.

    This school also limited field experiences because of liability and cost. So I invited people who worked in the area of science to do activities with my middle
    schoolers. The enthusiasm for science returned and the students made the connection of how the application of concepts were apart of our daily life.

    While reading your article another thought came to mind from my last year of teaching before taking a break. The most popular thing to do was to go home and watch Oprah after school. Sadly to say many kids opt to watch television or video games than going outside to play or socialize with friends.

  6. Thank you "The Momma." :-)

    Well, Laura, we've always seemed to be of like minds on this kind of thing, haven't we? :-) The quotes, yes--we were required to use a certain number of sources, but we weren't to do a properly cited paper. It was more informal, so we were supposed to imbed that info into the text. It all felt a bit cumbersome, but I did the best I could. I'm just glad you get my point! :-)

    Peggy, thank you for thinking of me! I went right on over and watched it, and it was fun and interesting. (I *want* that breakfast she cooked for the reporter!) :-)

    Judi, I don't think it's ever too late for any of us to develop a love for nature and all sorts of other good things! It's hard to change patterns with older kids--they demand such a different style of parenting than the youngers. But I do know one thing. If you pray about this and seek God's wisdom, He will direct your steps according to His plan for *your* family--educationally and otherwise! :-) Blessings to you! I will get the high school post written as soon as I can. I might pull some things from my "archives"--those boxes and boxes of writings--to give a big picture of our high school years. We'll see.

    Nancy, thank you for sharing all of that interesting information and insight. What a cool thing you did for your middle schoolers with science! I'm so glad you commented! :-)