Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Kids in the Woods: What do You Think?

There are few experiences I enjoy more than introducing young people to the natural world.  Whether it is a city park or a wilderness area, seeing a kid’s eyes light up with discovery is a tremendous joy.  Since I began leading others into the woods nearly twenty years ago, I have engaged in an internal struggle and a good-natured debate with colleagues:  Is it more important to teach students scientifically accurate information, or to let them explore and hypothesize, even if they might reach the wrong conclusion?

It obviously isn’t a true either/or choice, but on nearly every occasion I have led young people outside, this dilemma has popped up at some point.  Here’s one example:  Last winter my wife and I took our kids—ages three and seven at the time—out to look for animal tracks in the fresh fallen snow.  It was a wonderful night, clear, cold and windy.  We each had our own headlamp, and we walked a ski trail by our house.  We saw tracks of all kinds; hare, squirrel, fox and vole.  Near the end of the walk we even saw a wolf print. Our daughter in particular was extremely excited about the trip.

At one point she stopped and said, “Dad! Dad! Come here.  I found a great one.”  Looking down, there was a really interesting pattern in the snow, a number of little depressions, scattered around a small area.  She took great care in pointing to each of the depressions and then said she thought it was a squirrel.  So I had a choice.

I could either tell her that she was wrong, and that the depressions were caused by snow being blown off the branches above, or I could support her inquisitiveness and allow her to believe the tracks were created by a squirrel.  As I have done literally hundreds of times before, I said “Awesome find!  Those might have been made by squirrels, let’s go find some more.”  For the next 20 minutes I was pulled from one spot to another with squeals of delight as she found more “squirrel” tracks.

Now maybe I should have corrected her and given her the accurate explanation.  She and many of the students I have worked with over the years might have been better served by that approach.  But here’s why I didn’t do it.  I hope she has decades of outdoor exploration and learning ahead of her.  At some point she will figure out what really causes those patterns in the snow.  I hope she will learn to accurately interpret and label most things she comes across outside.

But in my work, the traits I most often hope to instill are the thrill of discovery and the willingness to draw conclusions based on the available information.  If students are quickly corrected and given the “right” answer as they explore the natural world, they will be missing out on the sense of wonder and the independence that many of us feel in natural surroundings.  They may begin to believe the outdoors are just another classroom setting where the stakes are high and the room for error is small.  They may be less willing to take positive risks in learning environments inside and out, and that is something none of us can afford.  I think I will continue to give accurate information, but support the eager learning attitude, even when it might lead to an overpopulation of “squirrels.”

What do you think?