By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant
It’s too bad the word “bug” is slang for “irritate.” For too many children, the slang is the literal. Bugs bug them.
We saw this reaction to nature in children from the St. Augustine Mission School in Winnebego, Nebraska, when taken on a field trip (before the school added a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom). They were “grossed out” by nature. From Los Angeles’ Fourth Street Early Childhood Center I was told the story of a boy, affected by his parents’ separation, who angrily stepped on bugs during his first days in the outdoor classroom. Within a few weeks he grew to become a caretaker of plants in the garden, and to value nature. I was also told of another child at Fourth Street who noticed a caterpillar while walking to school with his mother. He brought it to show his schoolmates. Over time, they observed the caterpillar become a butterfly. These are the transitions common to children who experience Nature Explore Classrooms.
Children raised in rural environments often have a comfort level with bugs and nature that their urban peers lack. Back in April I wrote a blog about Carol Cavell, founder of Trees Indiana. Instrumental in bringing a Nature Explore Classroom to a Fort Wayne school, Carol noticed a difference between local children, and those visiting from nearby rural towns. From that blog post: “Children who visit from Fort Wayne’s inner city areas are accustomed to concrete, not nature. ‘They don’t get out of their zip code much,’ says Carol. Bugs and caterpillars are icky or a bit scary to many of these children; until they experience supported encounters with insects in the outdoor classroom. Inner city children enter the classroom having comfort levels very different from those of their rural counterparts. Carol notes that the rural kids simply take to the space, while she sees the inner-city kids ‘come out of their nature phobia.”
During my times in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms I’ve seen many “bug hunts.” As rocks, sticks or leaves are moved to find what may be underneath, children often caution each other to be careful not to hurt the bugs.
Yet for many children today, nature is not natural. Teachers tell us that introducing a child to a new Nature Explore Outdoor classroom often involves discussions on how to protect and care for plants and animals, bugs included. These lessons are learned quickly, and bugs soon become a subject of curiosity and caretaking.
And it’s not only our children who are often avoidant of bugs. Our current societal disconnect from nature began years ago, so some teachers working in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms need to become comfortable with nature, as well.
New intern teachers at a Nebraska preschool with a Nature Explore Classroom learn this lesson through children. The school’s supervising teachers told me that most interns today are squeamish about bugs. Future teachers can’t be truly effective in working with children in the outdoor classroom until they get over this squeamishness. Children to the rescue! In a planned orientation event, children with outstretched hands bring bugs to the interns. This technique is used each year, and has proven enormously effective.
Once children become comfortable outdoors and with bugs, the world becomes more inviting. After all, a three-year-old’s eyes are close to the ground, so the world of bugs, leaves, sticks, mud and stones is more physically vivid to them than to us. The mother walking her child to the Los Angeles preschool hadn’t even seen the caterpillar he picked up. The caterpillar, too little to be noticed by her distant eyes was vivid and inviting to her small son.
Children look to us to validate their curiosity about the world, or to see our reactions to things natural. Through our behaviors and attitudes we can encourage wonder, or we can stifle it. We can make the world of insects either scary to a child, or a subject of wonder and fascination. Bugs can be icky, to be avoided; or curiosities to be observed, and protected.
Nature Explore Classrooms are ideal environments for children’s curiosity and learning to be validated and expanded by adults. Here, learning is spontaneous, self-directed, and fun. Why do ants go into a little hole in the ground? Where do ladybugs live? How many legs does a millipede have? Why do caterpillars turn into butterflies? Fascination with bugs can involve caretaking (be careful with that ladybug), and observation (watching the caterpillar metamorphose into a butterfly).
Observations inspire questions, which can result in drawings, stories, plays, or learning from books, or stories from friends or adults.
Nature Explore Classrooms inspire fascination in children, and caretaking of things natural. These attitudes and behaviors render the world more inviting and less intimidating to a small child. Isn’t this what we want for our children?
Don’t bug me? No way. Bug me.