Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Nature v. Science: Rivers & Bridges, or Chickens & Dinos

feeding chickens at the Dodge Farm
So,  I have the privilege of teaching a couple classes for homeschoolers once a week.  Cooperating homeschooling families meet at a church in the south metro one day a week and send their kids to a variety of classes.  I know Art class is very popular, as is Spanish (my students often call me by the Art teacher's name or greet me with an enthusiastic, "Hola!").  They also attend Creative Writing classes, and there's PE and something called eXtreme electroniX (that's gotta be cool, right?).  I am billed as, "Dodge Nature Center Science."  I never gave the title of this class much thought really.  I supplied a nice fat vitae and syllabus for families to peruse, but other people created the title and I inherited the class, so I just rolled with it.  But, actually, the title has begun to bug me.  The part of the appellation that sticks in my craw is, "Science."  You see, I teach these classes for three to seven-year-olds.

checking out Midas the chicken, with Joey
Nobody, but nobody really teaches three-year-olds "Science," with a capital "S."  A descriptor like "Science," suggests I am imparting a lot of facts and introducing a procedure for formal study.  That sort of thing isn't age-appropriate for young kids.  My own kids have "Science," in middle school and they are performing chemical experiments on rocks, learning lab procedure and reading textbooks with units on distinct topics.  This is age-appropriate for eleven and twelve-year-olds (and their teacher has the good sense to realize that her approach has to be heavy on the experiential and hands-on, with less emphasis on didactic imparting of facts and statistics).  What I teach, or support, for inquisitive youngsters is inquiry itself.  With the homeschool kiddos, our classes' outside exposure is limited to the host church's yard, landscaping and small flower garden.  I usually supplement this curtailed outside environment with a catalyst, like a live animal or a taxidermied bear head, and kids explore that catalyst, pursuing it with me via hands-on investigation, supportive literature, play and simple tools.  Inquiry and wonder is the age-appropriate beginning for scientific inquiry.  The seven-year-olds in my classes are definitely ready for more rigorous investigation and I supply them with a lot of games and guesswork that de-centralize the classroom in their favor and encourage them to find solutions to bigger questions.  These kids can use tools more readily, and most can read.  The journals that they use begin to function a bit more like actual journals, rather than a repository for experimental scribbles.  The older kids are that much closer to the moment when they will embark on theoretical ideas and more complicated experiments, but they still need and are primarily enlivened by hands-on, concrete experiences, like feeling the sharp canine curve of an actual wolf tooth.

real, live chicken feet
Experience leads to appreciation.  For young children, concrete experiences are more meaningful and especially so if they relate directly to that child's life and daily general experience (that's why my catalysts are usually native to life in Minnesota).  Kids love the idea of sharks, and can talk about sharks, or dinosaurs for that matter, for a long time.  They love the taxonomy and danger associated with these animals.  The taxonomy and the danger are equally abstract, really.  It is fun to collect the names of dinosaurs, and to link them to the stats of a particular animal that used to occupy the planet.  It is also fun to imagine sharks ripping other living things to shreds.  This is all very hypothetical though.  In my "Science," class we could geek out on dinos, sharks or space all day, but we wouldn't be having a real experience, other than our shared joy in discussion (which we can't underestimate, of course!.  Instead, I know it is much more valuable to try to hold a chicken and feel it's "dinosaur" feet.  In the case of the chicken, the child is interacting with an actual thing-- looking at, feeling, smelling and responding to something that is directly related to human life on Earth.  In all cases, the real thing is the best thing, especially for young children.  And nothing jogs the mind to consider hypotheticals like a genuine experience.

chickens are sort of like turkeys...and, "Look!  I'm a turkey!"
Recently, while teaching about wild turkeys, I presented my class with an actual turkey egg.  Now, we had just read a book about turkeys nesting on the ground and we had wondered what might pose a danger to such eggs.  The size, the color and the fragility of the actual egg immediately prompted terrific guesses about the demise of the eggs.  And the honor and challenge of passing a real egg filled with a real yolk around the circle of kids inspired the children to reach new heights in impulse control and motor skill.  It is easy to discuss how the shape of an egg evolves to suit it's purpose when you can roll it on the floor and see what trajectory the roll takes (cliff-dwelling birds have very pointed eggs, which keeps the eggs from rolling off the edge-- notice how "Math" concepts climbed right in there?).

If you've read this blog before, I am no doubt preaching to the choir on this experiential stuff, but it is important to realize that age-appropriate teaching for young children has terrific outcomes.  Kids who get to experiment with the stuff of life, those that get to hold a real salamander for instance, or climb an actual tree, they not only build a relationship with the natural world, they build a relationship with their own body and their own mind.  Large and fine motor skill development, sensory development, impulse control development...all of these things are inextricably linked to cognitive development.  The kid who learns where to put her feet and hands when she is swinging up into a tree has learned to think hypothetically through experience.  Experience teaches kids how to think.  That's why babies put everything in their mouths.  Three to seven-year-olds will be smarter and more capable if they are allowed to experiment with their bodies and the world, to take calculated risks (with a chaperon) and to reflect on those experiences.  Kids will be more ready for the abstract, for "Science," if they have first had a real relationship with the stuff that inspires it.  "Snowflake" Bentley couldn't have discovered so much about snowflakes if he didn't first play in the snow, and love it.  In this way, the form of scientific inquiry follows the function of interacting with the world.  The drive to build a sturdy bridge across a raging river leads us to mathematics and architecture.  Too often we think of knowledge in a backward way (bridge before river) in our rush to educate our kids.

I've said it before, but I myself didn't really grasp "math" as an interesting, necessary, vital concept or as a study of the forces of nature, until I was an adult.  Too much of my own "Math," with a capital "M," education was marred by a lack of hands-on experience.  Through working to side our house, my husband came to understand fractions and geometry in a whole new, real, necessary way.  My own first-hand admiration of seashells, pine cones, artichokes, sunflowers, the crowns of trees and the art of Andy Goldsworthy led me to an understanding of Fibonacci numbers.  Going into labor is a great way to learn about inertia and falling out of an airplane will certainly school you on gravity.  But, seriously, what am I teaching my Dodge students and my homeschoolers?  Is it Science?  Well, I hope I'm encouraging them to look and think, primarily.  And what do you call that?  Maybe "pre-science prep""  Or maybe you call it, "Nature Appreciation," with a capital "N."  So much of what I do as a shepherd and chaperon is social coaching as well.  We explore the world around us, and we also learn how to do this alongside other people.  In fact, perhaps 99.9% of what I do with kids, here at Dodge, and elsewhere is support social skill development.  I just happen to think that play outside, and interaction with the natural world, is the best way to promote social and emotional development.  So maybe we should just call that homeschool class what it is: "Nature Club."  Like any other social organization, we hang out together, but in this case, nature is our excuse.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Thank You, Castor Canadensis

photo courtesy of the intrepid Holly Brand
Beavers are pretty entertaining.  Ever watched a beaver go about his business?  No?  I recommend visiting Wild River State Park and hiking down to the Nevers Dam Overlook.  You can park by the camper cabins, or stay overnight in one for $50 (they sleep 6, so that's a good deal), then walk down a very long stepped path to the western shore of the Saint Croix River.  Plan on getting down there about an hour before sunset.  At the bottom of the path, veer to the left (north?) and look up river.  Scan the ice, and hopefully open water, between the shore and that island just off shore.  Do you see him?  Not yet?  Well, look for signs of his handiwork along the bank.  If he's been busy, you'll see plenty of fresh stumps, skinned sticks, dragged saplings and precariously leaning, almost gnawed through trees.  This guy can cut down a dinner plate diameter tree in 15 minutes.  Oh!  There he is!  Look, he's swimming in the open channel.  See him paddling against the current?  Now he's hauling himself carefully up on the shelf of ice.  He's such a dark satisfying blob against the winter-pink, waning light.  He's trying hard not to break that thin ice; he walks like an old lady with brittle bones until he gains purchase on the thicker stuff.  What's he doing now?  Wait, is he looking over here?  Now he's up on his hind legs-- he's so tall!  Reaching up with his little front feet--little hands--to grab that branch.  And, he's, well, he's just chowing down on  it.  I can hear him now.  

Saint Croix eddy, Trumpeter Swans just around the bend

Dodge Nature Center doesn't have any beavers.  I wish we did.  It is seriously engrossing to watch these animals.  Last weekend, my kids and I hiked up and down that steep hill, with all those thigh-burning steps over and over again, just to get a glimpse of the beaver, and his/her (?) mate at work.  They showed up every evening and didn't seem to mind us too much.  We had to be quiet and respectful.  No sudden movements, no loud noises.  And you know who got the closest to these industrious animals?  My daughter J.J.  She is a whirling dervish of energy-- an ant, a fidget, a dancer, a gymnast.  The kid doesn't sit still for much and the rest of us are usually just racing to catch up with her (all those steps really didn't take any wind out of her sails).  But J.J. became still as stone watching the beavers.  She couldn't get enough.  And little by little, without anybody, including the beavers, noticing, J.J. inched ever closer to the animals.  She watched and watched.  The sun began to set.  I watched her watch.  Her focus was singular.  Her breathing slowed, her muscles relaxed.  She had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do.  She was just alive in the moment and completely at ease in her own skin, just a few feet away from working wild animals.  I was struck by the power of the experience, her experience.  These animals, in their place, leading their lives alongside or independent of us, had the power to awaken and stimulate awareness and also to soothe, frankly, a frenetic little soul.
Children:  delightfully disorienting

Time and again, we here at Dodge give lip service to the power of spending time outside.  I seem to go on and on about this non-stop in my writing life, and of course I see the power of play and exploration outside in my daily work with young children at our Preschool, but...nothing hits home with as much power as personal experience.  I certainly know I need to spend time outside.  I know my kids do too.  Just the other day, I realized with a wince that my kids were so busy with school, homework and enriching activities that they really are not getting much vitamin D these short late fall days.  It's dark when they get on the bus.  It's dark when they finally have down time, and it is usually so late in the day that they don't go out and play.  Despite the fact that it would, and did, make our Thanksgiving weekend crazier, I vowed that our family would get outside together and head off to Wild River State Park.  I'm really, really glad we made time for time outside.  Although watching your own kids is a vicarious experience, there is something oddly more personal about it than having your very own experience.  It is hard to explain, but I've learned that parents literally live through their kids, through the ups, and the downs.  It can be disorienting to realize that you no longer really own yourself-- your kids own you in a delightful, and also truly terrifying way.  So here I am to tell you once again, get outside and slow down out there.  Dodge may not have beavers, but we have plenty of other stuff to slow down with:  deer, turkeys, ponds and creeks, snow on spruces.  You can't watch the grass grow in winter, but you can watch the snow pile up and the clouds scuttle overhead.  Dress warmly, be comfortable and find a way to just be out there.  For a few long moments, just live in someone else's moment:  a beaver's moment, a jay's moment, or a kid's moment.  Those are bigger, longer moments for sure, bigger than all the busier little parts that make up the mysterious sum that is life on this planet.

*Castor Canadensis is a truly interesting animal; get the basic facts at the MN DNR.