Our most recent field trip took us to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, which is known for it’s wonderful birdwatching opportunities. It rained all day the day before the trip, through the night, and into the morning of the trip, so there was some uncertainty as to whether we’d even go, third graders being out in the rain and all. Optimistic minds prevailed, though, and with a timely note home urging parents to send kids in raincoats, boots, and sweatshirts, we did go.
At Jamaica Bay, you start off in a visitors center that, among several exhibits, has a section of wildlife specimens to handle (feathers, horseshoe crab shells, bivalves, pinecones, etc). The kids gravitated to it, asking lots of questions and making inferences. Their excitement bubbled to the surface and they nagged and nudged me to get them out on the path. (Not before I went over our scavenger hunt with them, though!)
So we stepped out and made for the path to the loop that would take us around that particular part of the bay, and wouldn’t you know it, everything stopped when one of my students spotted a tiny little snail on the path. Well, of course, we had to investigate the snail, and I didn’t mind one bit. They were, however, apprehensive about picking it up.
Let me explain my background with nature. As a kid, I wasn’t a boy scout or anything fancy. I didn’t fish, I didn’t dig, and I sure as heck didn’t touch any insects. I did, however, like fossils, geodes, rock specimens, and stuff like amber. (I lined all of these things up on the desk in my room and called it my “museum.” Every time someone got me a new specimen, my mom would say, “Oh, look! You can put that in your museum!” I have a humorous image of bespectacled and doofy me curating the exhibits right now. Let me sit with it…Okay, done.) I also liked playing Super Nintendo and Game Boy, and the extent of my outdoor involvement was digging a hole at the beach or playing catch with my dad or friends.
In my teens, my cousin introduced me to fishing. He was a maven, so I took his lead and had some good times with him on docks and rowboats. It took me a while until I mustered the courage to bait a hook with a worm or a fish (he’d so flippantly say, “Put it through the eye and get it behind the skull,” as if explaining how to shoot a basketball), and I was still squeamish about handling a still living fish. Working at camp, I became still less intimidated by nature, willingly handling worms, gerbils, turtles and the like.
Three years ago, I decided I wanted to go camping. And it wasn’t like I said to myself, “I may like it.” No, I knew intuitively I would like it – being one with nature, building fires, encountering wildlife (not really, it turns out), hiking, etc. So I’m much less squeamish now than I ever was, which brings me back to the snail on the trail.
As my little dolls gathered round the unsuspecting animal, oohing, ahhing, and ewwing, I picked it up like it was nothing special. But when I offered it to the kids to hold, they were nauseated by the prospect. I can understand being momentarily put off by the potential sliminess, and I have been there in my own life, but it begs the question: Why are kids so scared of nature? I mean, nothing is more natural than nature!
This isn’t to say the kids didn’t eventually hold the snail or that they didn’t love the trip (swarming gnats and all!), but there is something unsettling about this nature phobia.
Nature shouldn’t be feared. It should be embraced. Kids should be out catching frogs in the pond, holding caterpillars, inspecting slugs. They should be looking at different plants and trees and lifting rocks. Mud and dirt are not bad things!
Maybe kids need exposure before they can throw themselves into plucking snails up as joyously as others. Maybe they’ll wait 20 years before they explore more fully the wonders of the world. Maybe they’ll never care, and who am I to say they should? I just wish I saw less fear in these situations. Nature isn’t yucky! It’s awesome.