This morning I had the privilege of taking a small group of preschool-aged children for a nature hike. They were excited to show me all of their favorite places on the grounds of the nature center. We started out at a brisk pace, that energy and excitement barely contained. We had a destination in mind, but along the way there were SO many things to stop and examine.
Children are great collectors. We often find sticks, rocks, feathers, pinecones, and other random objects in pockets, bags, and the washing machine. They love to pick things up, carry them, show them to other people, and tuck them safely away in a pocket. On our hike this morning, the children showed me black cap raspberries, burdock, feathers, snails, slugs, and toads.
The toads were especially exciting. In a grassy path, lined with jewelweed and burdock on either side, we found dozens of small toads jumping in front of our feet. The children were quite adept at spotting and catching the tiny creatures. I have to admit that I get nervous when children catch animals. I am always worried about harm to a living being. It's a fine line to walk - balancing a child's desire to learn, and need to touch, with the well-being of a much smaller creature. They were incredibly gentle with the toads and wanted to take them all the way back to school to show their classmates. After a long discussion about what would be best for the toads, we decided to carry them just a short distance to one of their favorite places in the woods and release them there. They reasoned that the habitat was similar and they would be safer in the woods than back in the classroom. The toads, which they insisted on calling "frogs," fared well. They all made it to Tipi Hill, cradled gently in small palms. As the children opened their cupped hands and the toads jumped back out into the world, one child squealed with delight. She stretched both arms to the sky, looked up into the canopy of trees, and exclaimed, "Frogs are my life!"
Indeed, in that moment "frogs" were at the center of everyone's life. It was a wonderful reminder of the power of nature in the lives of children. And why we can't be afraid to let them touch, explore, question, and seek with limited interference. That morning the children experienced freedom, connectedness with their environment, the care of living creatures, patience, confidence, negotiation, the ethics of removing an animal from its habitat, and the sheer joy of discovery. And we only used two band-aids.
The good news for urban-dwellers is you don't need to be at a nature center or deep in the woods for children to have experiences like these. Let them explore the backyard, the schoolyard, a nearby park, an alley, a lawn, or even a sidewalk crack. They will find living creatures. And who knows, your child might joyfully exclaim, "Ants are my life!"
Some nature books in urban settings:
Hey Little Ant, by Phillip and Hannah Hoose
Ladybug Girl and Bumblebee Boy, by Jacky David
The Curious Garden, by Peter Brown