Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Last Child in the Woods

Maybe because of my love of natural history and figuring out what I see around me, I've wondered about the current techniques of teaching kids about nature, which tend to involve foreign ecosystems like the Arctic or the Amazon. But I've never been able to articulate my unease about the disconnect between what kids see around them and what they are taught im school. In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv discusses elementary-school environmental education that focuses on the rainforest and starts to clarify my feelings. The rainforest is intriguing to adults and the damage done by humans there is clear, so it makes a tempting topic for teaching kids about human impacts on the environment; kids learn that each day, thousands of acres of rainforest are cut down to make way for cattle raising. The worthwhile goal is to teach kids to think about the world around them, recycle, vote for green politicians. But all too often, what kids may be learning is that environmental problems are so huge that it is best not to think about them - to not think about nature at all. The problems are too far away, too big, too adult for little kids to think about, so they don't. In the meantime, they shut off interest in the plants and animals around them and never develop a real connection with the environment. "Lacking direct experience with nature, children begin to associate it with fear and apocalypse, not joy and wonder."

The problem isn't just emotional, it's intellectual as well. Since kids don't know anything about how plants and animals work, they can't understand the rainforest any better than they can understand quantum mechanics. As Barbara Kingsolver notes in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, some kids think that when plants grow, pansies are followed by daisies are followed by chrysanthemums, because that is what they see in their local parks, as the groundskeepers replant the flower beds to keep them full; they don't understand how vegetables grow because they don't know that bud is followed by flower is followed by seed or fruit. Until they learn this relatively simple process, how can they possibly learn about the complexity of the rainforest pollinators?

The solution is easy for homeschoolers, and relatively easy for public schools in Bozeman, but more difficult for urban schools: get the kids outside and let them learn about nature firsthand. Let them collect red and yellow leaves and make pictures with them while the parent or teacher talks about why chlorophyll disappears in the fall and lets the leaf's colors show through. Let them walk in field grass in the late spring and see the tiny flowers hanging from timothy and bromegrass, then read about flowers and what they are for. Let them visit a bee keeper and see how he gets honey ready for the store, how he takes care of his bees, the role they play in pollination. Let them play in the cottonwood cotten or blow on a puffball dandelion, and hear about seed dispersal. Then when they are older, they can learn about the rainforest and connect it to what they know of their local ecosystem.

Louv has lots of other important ideas in his book, about why American culture makes it hard for kids to get to know nature, why it is important that they do, and what we can do about it, both individually and as a culture; but this small idea resonated with me, encouraging me to stick with our natural history studies rather than being seduced by the latest exotic ecosystem.

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