On Squids, Kids, and Praying Mantises

16 10 2011

I don’t often read political commentator Bill O’Reilly’s column in the paper, but his headline today grabbed me: Adventure in the Woods with Kids. Those three nouns–adventure, woods, and kids– are what I am all about. So I read his column as he whined about his experience trying unsuccessfully to get a group of seven children to tear themselves away from their electronics to go for a walk in the woods. He concluded with the implication that today’s children are too namby-pamby and as a result our country is going to go to hell in a handbasket.

I don’t buy it.

Let me explain.

On Friday, I spent 12 hours with a group of fifth graders on a field trip to Hunting Island. While most had been to the beach before, many had never had the experiences we had with nature that day. We explored a maritime forest, slapping hordes of apparently malnourished mosquitoes as we learned how slash pines use fire as a survival mechanism. We prodded the rotting carcass of a horseshoe crab, holding our noses as we looked at her underbelly and discovered that she was closer to a spider than a crab. Legs shaking, we climbed out onto the rim of the lighthouse and gazed upon the wide and glistening ocean panorama. We found sharks’ teeth, sand dollars, blue crabs, ghost crabs, and hermit crabs. One group of students even found a dead squid washed up on the rocks of the groin. Gross as some of these things were, the children were engrossed. They were also excited, active, and engaged. I heard more than one student declare firmly that this was the best day of their lives. I didn’t hear a single complaint.

Who wants to hold a dead crab? Pick me, pick me!

On Saturday, I participated in Dig in the Dirt Day, the annual clean-up day at our school’s Outdoor Classroom. It never ceases to amaze me that children who can’t be bribed to pick up the socks from their bedroom floor will spend two hours on a hot Saturday morning dragging away branches, pulling weeds, clipping briars, and generally having a blast. There were children there who had never used a hoe in their lives. There was also a child who could drive a tractor and explain how to start a recalcitrant weed-eater. The big hit of the day, however, was a four-inch (no lie!) praying mantis that they found. This praying mantis obligingly climbed from one hand to another as each child experienced one of nature’s most interesting assassins. Again, no complaints, just excited, active, engaged children engrossed in exploring the great outdoors.

Which is scarier, a four-inch insect, or purple fingernails?

Later that day, my weary body dragged myself over to the university, where the annual S.E.E.D. event was taking place. I told my students that after “digging in the dirt,” the next step was to plant a “SEED,” and Science Enrichment Education Day was all that. Over 3,000 children and adults participated in hundreds of hands-on science activities, making paper, building straw towers, petting alligators, and testing for radioactivity. The atmosphere was like that of a carnival as children dragged their parents from one exhibit to the next, talked with scientists of all kinds, and collected souvenirs: slime, fossils, and pipe cleaner models of neurons. And all this without a complaint or a Game Boy anywhere around.

If I had a choice between being in a climate-controlled environment with a pantry filled with snacks and a game system with enough games to keep me occupied the rest of my life, or experiencing the sweaty (or frigid) outdoors with smelly objets d’nature and danger lurking around every corner and under every rock, those who know me know where I’d be. But let’s not leave those decisions to children. If you get children outside, if you let them experience the real side of nature and our world, you will see a blooming of creative energy and interest akin to the blooming of a desert after a rainstorm.

Bill O’Reilly should stick to political commentary, because he obviously doesn’t know squat about children. You can’t love what you don’t know. You can’t know what you don’t experience. There should be no choice in the matter. It is our job as adults to give children experiences with our world. There is a place for electronics, but children don’t need much coaxing to use technology. Instead, let’s give our children real experiences with nature. Then stand back, don’t mind the dirt, and hold your nose, for as everybody knows, squids will be squids.

And next week, my students will learn another of my favorite poems:

Praying Mantis

by Mary Ann Hoberman in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

That praying mantis over there

Is really not engaged in prayer.

That praying mantis that you see

Is really preying (with an “e”).

It preys upon the garter snake.

It preys upon the bumblebee.

It preys upon the cabbage worm,

The wasp, the fly, the moth, the flea.

(And sometimes, if its need is great,

It even preys upon its mate.)

With prey and preying both so endless,

It tends to end up rather friendless

And seldom is commended much

Except by gardeners and such.



One response

16 10 2011

I agree with you heartily on all points, except that I also don’t want Bill O’Reilly to stick to political commentary. He needs to find some other occupation that is less dangerous to society than any kind of commentary.

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