Posts Tagged ‘nature journaling’

Of all the reading I’ve done in the field of teaching and tree-hugging, David Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia is one of two or three titles that I return to regularly, one that has profoundly influenced my thinking.  It’s a slim little volume, all of 45 pages, that asks some important questions about environmental education. Here’s an excerpt from a magazine article/summary where he outlines his concerns:

What really happens when we lay the weight of the world’s environmental problems on eight and nine year-olds already haunted with too many concerns and not enough real contact with nature?

The crux of the issue is the developmental appropriateness of environmental curricula. One problem we have in schools is premature abstraction – we teach too abstractly, too early. Mathematics educators have recently realized that premature abstraction was one of the major causes of math phobia among children in the primary grades. Unable to connect the signs and symbols on the paper with the real world, many children were turning off to math. Mathematics instruction has been reinvigorated in the last two decades through the use of concrete materials (such as cuisinaire rods, fraction bars, and Unifix cubes) and the grounding of math instruction in the stuff and problems of everyday life. The result has been the turning of the tide against math phobia.

Perhaps to be replaced by ecophobia – a fear of ecological problems and the natural world. Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, whale hunting, acid rain, the ozone hole, and Lyme disease. Fear of just being outside. If we prematurely ask children to deal with problems beyond their understanding and control, then I think we cut them off from the possible sources of their strength.

In response to physical and sexual abuse, children learn distancing techniques, ways to cut themselves off from the pain. My fear is that our environmentally correct curriculum will end up distancing children from, rather than connecting them with, the natural world. The natural world is being abused, and they just don’t want to have to deal with it.

I propose that there are healthy ways to foster environmentally aware, empowered students. We can cure the malaise of ecophobia with ecophilia –supporting children’s biological tendency to bond with the natural world.

And then, right at the end, this single sentence that has resonated with me  for years:

If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.

I thought about all of this at the end of last week when Will came home from school talking about the problem of plastics accumulating in our oceans, sharing details about how plastic debris can be found in seafood or how, in the vast mid-ocean eddy currents, smaller fragments outnumber plankton.

Is this an important topic?  Well, yes, of course.  If I could, I’d make every adult in the world watch this eye-opening TED Talk video.  But would I show it to 8-year-old kids?  I know what David Sobel would say.  To his credit, Will has biophilia strong enough that this little bit of grim news isn’t going to snuff it.  His response has been one of earnest concern, not distancing and disengagement. (Perhaps he’ll help me lean on Belinda to stop buying bottled water for the kids to drink in our backyard.)  And I give credit to his teacher (she’s just generally awesome) for taking the class down to Whetstone Creek to do a little clean-up, hands-on service learning encouraging a sense of possibility and empowerment where there might otherwise be despair and withdrawal.  Nonetheless, I agree with Sobel that a steady diet of this kind of environmental awareness, no matter how well intentioned, cannot be developmentally appropriate for kids his age.  For my own part, I don’t breathe a word to the boys of my profound disquiet and worry about environmental trends.

Instead, I just keep taking them outside, doing what I can to instill a biophilia durable enough to encourage and sustain engagement in the future.  Over Labor Day weekend we made a visit to the Newman Wetlands Center, one of my favorite nature getaways in the Atlanta metro area.

Walking the half-mile boardwalk trail, we saw fish, turtles, snakes, and a pair of whitetail deer at surprisingly close quarters.  Preserved in the mud, there were all sorts of intriguing animal tracks to speculate about.  But the big attraction at mid-afternoon in late summer has to be the dragonflies, a bewildering and bewitching diversity of Odonata.  We came equipped with binoculars and a good field guide and learned to identify Blue Dasher, Eastern Pondhawk (male and female), Common Whitetail (male and female), and Common Green Darner.  All three of us brought our journals to record our findings and impressions.  And all three of us came away feeling the love.  At my boys’ ages, that’s the most important outcome for environmental education.  Even if it can’t be easily assessed by standardized tests.


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We arrived in Niobrara State Park yesterday evening to find a landscape full of light and motion, the tall grasses on the hillsides rippling in the wind like the surface of a pond and the setting sun flooding the entire scene with warmth.  It was every bit as spectacular as the boys and I remembered from our visit two summers ago.  The boys lobbied hard for us to return to the same campsite we had used before, one tucked into a sheltering grove of trees in a little hollow.  In the end, though, we chose a site high on an open, grassy ridge.  Dad was really taken with the panorama of the braided confluences of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers, and the boys exploded with delight to see a bald eagle wheel past at nearly eye level.  About the wind, Dad predicted “I really think it will die down once the sun sets.”

Well, I’ve been teasing him all day about this last one, his finely-tuned sailor’s intuition not serving him well in the center of the continent.  The wind was strong enough as we cooked dinner to blow a full can of beer off of the cooking table, and erecting the tents was something of an adventure (would have been flat-out impossible with cheaper gear).  On the plus side, it was nice and warm, and no mosquitoes pestered us.  I’ve got to give Dad credit, moreover, for cooking a terrific meal in that howling gale—bacon-wrapped filets and fried potatoes and steamed vegetables.  I’m basically putting him in charge of the cooking for the duration!  And in the meantime, the boys and I learned that you can succesfully fly a kite in that kind of wind  provided you attach the right kind of tail.

In fact the wind did not die down overnight but has steadily increased all day.  Cooking breakfast (scrambled eggs and fried potatoes and sausage links) and breaking camp was again a bit of an adventure, and by this afternoon we were fighting a steady 40 mph headwind as we drove west across the plains.  Tonight finds us camped in another comfortable hotel, this time in Casper, WY.  We’ll head to Yellowstone tomorrow.

The boys journaling through our lunch stop at Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

A quick note about the boys: the best 15 dollars I have spent on ths trip has them both set up with little journals, and they have been writing and drawing away in the back of the car and at every stop to make this English teacher’s heart proud.

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I last posted, but I had to take a break from virtual reality following the election.  And I’m through with talking politics for a while, even though my ClustrMap lit up like fireflies in Cades Cove when I did—thanks and welcome to any new readers still sticking around.  Anyway, back to more familiar terrain for a word or two . . .

So I took the boys to the mountains a couple of Sundays ago for a dayhike to the summit of Tray Mountain on the A.T.  This being the time of year when Atlanta television and radio stations sound the Pavlovian bell of “peak fall color” predictions, the mountains were crowded with Sunday drivers making obligatory visits, and we sat in traffic for a good twenty minutes trying to get through Helen’s faux-Bavarian sprawl on the last day of Oktoberfest.  Had I been thinking more clearly in planning our day, I would have taken us somewhere else.  But there we were.

The hike is an easy one, maybe a little more than a mile from the high point on F.S. 79, and the summit is dramatic enough, an open crest of rock, knuckled like an alligator’s back, affording some nice views in places over the surrounding rhododendron tangles.  We stayed up there for almost two hours doing nothing.  Doing everything.

Will, who had amassed a collection of rocks on the hike up, sat down and pulled out his treasured science book from his backpack to try to identify them.  His 1st grade textbook wasn’t much help, so I got called into service and promptly disappointed him with the information that 1) every single one was some sort of schist and that 2) metamorphic rocks don’t contain fossils (of course, that didn’t stop him from trying to load twenty pounds’ worth into his bookbag for the hike out).  Meanwhile Andrew scrambled around in the rhododendron, bouldered on a little cliff face on the side of the summit block, made a collection of pretty leaves (demanding my personal inspection and approval for each one).  After a while, Will pulled out a little notecard journal to draw the summit and take notes—”Dad, how do you spell metamorphic?”—while Andrew moved on to searching for insects and I tried (and failed) to doze in the sun.  Both boys were disappointed when I said it was time to go.


Will’s only seen me work in my own naturalist journal a time or two (I’m usually much too busy when the kids are around), so I was surprised (and inordinately pleased) to see him take to it like this.


Have CamelBak, will bash through rhododendron

There were, unsurprisingly, a lot of people out on a perfect afternoon.  It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that 30 people visited the summit in the time that we were there, in pairs, in foursomes, in entire three generation extended families out hiking around.  But here’s the thing I keep thinking about: no one else stayed there at the summit for more than about ten minutes.  True, a few were hiking through to other destinations, but most turned around and headed back to the car after snapping a few pictures, maybe eating a granola bar.  I suppose I should be grateful, as the place would have been crowded had everyone lingered as long as we did, but the afternoon reminded me how difficult it can be for us adults to kick off frontcountry restlessness.  I guess I’m more at home in the mountains than most, but I can’t claim to reach the total here-and-nowness of my kids, at least not without having been out for a few days at a stretch.  Good for them.

To the other parents of young kids we saw that afternoon, to those we’ll see in the future, slow down and stay awhile.  Let them feel at home, let the mountains feel like home and not just a place to visit.  Bring a book if you have to, or a picnic, but sit still and turn them loose.  And watch them grow.

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