Raising a Young Naturalist
Like most homeschooling moms, I had a lot of fears when we first started homeschooling. My four-year-old was cautious. He was quiet in big groups, and he didn’t want to participate in group games. He preferred to explore a pile of woodchips by himself on park day. He hated story hour at the library. Now I laugh at myself. He was only four.
Luckily we live within a reasonable driving distance to a nature center, where they were offering a class for 3- to 5-year-olds that would introduce them to nature. My family loves nature, so it seemed like a good class to try.
At first my son was very timid in the class, but soon I started to witness something remarkable. He blossomed. And it wasn’t just a little kid coming out of his shell. It was a little kid finding a passion.
My son leapt out of his skin every time the facilitator brought out live animals. Snakes were his favorite, and three years later, he still says he wants to be a scientist who studies snakes when he grows up.
At first I thought to myself that every kid likes nature, right? Maybe my child would have blossomed in any class I had taken him to at that age. But then the facilitator told me one day that she could tell my son had a true passion for nature. She said other kids might say, “That’s cool,” but then they would walk away. My son stayed by her side, wanting to see more. He loved helping her turn over logs on the trails.
Ever since that first class, I have continued to foster his love of nature and science. As a family, we love hiking, so that’s not hard to do. But my husband and I have also done a few other things to support him:
- We continue to go to classes at the nature center. I call it our second home.
- We bought our son a small camera so that he can record the natural discoveries he makes.
- I bought my son a big notebook, and we call it his nature journal. He likes to paste his photos in there, and I label them for him. I’ve encouraged him to draw what he sees, but he prefers photography. That’s okay with me.
- I have supported his desire to collect items from nature: We bought a medium-sized wooden box at a craft supply store, and we call it my son’s “treasure box.” He has a bird’s nest, nuts, rocks, and even a squashed baby snake in it. (We seal items like that in plastic bags!)
- His nature collection is too big for the box, so we’ve dedicated some shelves in his room for other items. He has shells, shark teeth, ammonite fossils, small dinosaur bones, a beaver chew, a bison bone, a geode, and lots of rocks on his shelves.
- We consider our yard a laboratory, and we continuously observe the wildlife in it. We have containers on our front porch containing pupas and cocoons, and we are eagerly waiting for them to emerge.
- My son is participating in our state parks’ Junior Ranger program.
- Together our whole family watches nature documentaries daily.
- We visit natural history and science museums, attend rock and gem shows, and take advantage of any other opportunity to explore nature and science.
- As project-based homeschoolers, we make time for our son’s own interests and projects, many of which have to do with science.
Oceanographer Sylvia Earle said in an interview: “A critter person. Children generally start out that way, given a chance to explore even in their own back yard. So often, the adults around them will say, oh, don’t touch that beetle or, ugh, an earthworm, or caterpillars, yuck. My parents were different….”
All children are born scientists. They explore their world, ask questions, and test their limits. I have rid myself of the “ick reaction” to the slimy and oozy parts of nature because I see something in my child that I don’t want to lose. I know from listening to other interviews with scientists that their love of exploration, nature and inquiry started at a very young age.
Ultimately, I do not know if he will chose to become a naturalist or a scientist as a career, but I do know that a love of nature can sustain him through many of life’s obstacles, and an appreciation for the Earth is something everyone should maintain. My job as his parent is to observe, listen, and foster this inquisitive mind. So here I am, exploring the world with my son.
This column from our very first issue launched Shelli's Hands-On Science series. We're reprinting it here as part of our big web relaunch. To get Shelli's thoughtful, practical resources for everyday nature and science study in every issue of home/school/life, subscribe.