Teacher Talk: Sharing the joy of nature with children

Posted: Friday, October 17, 2003

I just returned from our annual class field trip to the Methodist Camp for the day. My teaching partner and I take both our kindergartenfirst-grade classes every September. I am spent and exhausted, yet exhilarated. There were 50 (yes 50) kindergartners and first graders along with about 20 incredible adult family members, teachers and assistants. We were fortunate enough to have postponed our trip during the dismal September weather we were having, to a day that was sunny and near 60 degrees. Camp doesn't get much better than this.

After the students made their snacks from the trail mix ingredients, we "hit the trail" to look at beaver dams, beaver trees and nature in general. I am always mesmerized and awed by a small child's wonder at our natural world. While I, as an adult, tend to look at the bigger natural wonders, children tend to look at the natural world with their magnifying eyes. They closely watch a small worm in the dead debris of the trail. Something I never would have seen if they hadn't pointed it out. Is it because I am taller and don't notice things closer to the ground? Even something so simple as taking a drink from the water fountain outside turned into a science observation as we watched a tiny caterpillar wiggle its way through the water left there by 50 children. As one of my wise students pointed out: "I like to walk slowly, that way I can notice more!" If I didn't know better, I'd say he was beyond his 6 years on our beautiful planet.

Day camp is a way to build community and forge friendships, but it's so much more than that. It's also a way to get children outdoors to discover the wonders the natural world has to offer. From five different colors of moss (green, red, yellow, gray and orange) to snails in a muskeg pond, they see it all. As I point out the teeth marks that the beavers left on a spruce tree, they notice a tiny spider in the cracks of the same tree. As I point out the small stream we were walking over, they point out the mud at the bottom that the beavers must use to help them build their dams.

I have always felt fortunate to live in such a beautiful place as Southeast Alaska. But when sharing it with children, the fortune grows. Even when one little girl proclaims she must wash her hands immediately because she found dirt on them, I hope for a future nature lover, a convert in the making. As I hand her a wet wipe, I wistfully watch four other girls making mud pies in the biggest of mud puddles left by the 1112 inches of rain we had in September. Yes, every experience is worth remembering and cherishing, such as watching the sheer delight of children as they blow bubbles and watch them float up beyond reach. Or when they notice the colors in the bubble as the sun hits it.

Fortunately, learning for children happens every moment whether we're "teaching" or not. What does all this have to do with "No Child Left Behind," the Alaska State Standards and the Juneau CORE you ask? Not only are children learning about the changes in the world around them, they're developing rich language through outdoor experiences that enhances their literacy development. They're even learning math as our small group collects rocks in the shapes of triangles, squares, rectangles and ovals. They observed their boot prints and found not only rectangles, but trapezoids and rhombuses!

The next time you're outdoors, just imagine you're a 5- or 6-years old and bend down close to the earth and just watch what unfolds before you. We could all learn a lot from a young child.

I would like to mention that without support and parent involvement, trips like these would not be possible. I wish to thank the previous teachers who came up with the idea of going to camp: Kathy Hanna, Debbie Fagnant, Fred Hiltner, Mimi Walker and others I have not purposefully forgotten.

• Mary McBride is a teacher at Riverbend Elementary School

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