When it rains in Central Pennsylvania in the spring, bright orange newts come out of the streams and forest in legions. Their orange and red bodies dot a backdrop of lush green grasses. They're not very quick, leaving them vulnerable to predators and inquisitive little boys who hunt and chase and capture their curious prey.
We've always encouraged an ethic of capture and release, hopefully sparing the lives of countless earth worms, caterpillars, lightning bugs, and salamanders. During those few moments of captivity though, there is much to learn from our catch.
1. Learning with our senses
Newts are easy to pick out due to their bright color. And we're able to observe lots of other creatures from afar: turkeys, deer, snakes, frogs. But when you hold a creature in your hands, there is more to experience then just their physical appearance. A newt is smooth and sometimes wet which leads to conversations about their habitat in the cool, wet places in the forest. They make no sound leading to conversations about their docile, sluggish temperament. Some creatures have a distinct smell. As my son says, "Newts smell like rain and worms smell like dirt." We use all of our senses to experience nature and those who live in it.
2. Response to danger
The myriad of newts in our yard after the rain are slow and make no attempt to allude capture. They none-the-less wriggle and squirm when held and move away from danger when released. We've had other more exciting run ins with nature. A small snake was warming itself on our brick front path one afternoon when he was encountered by a small boy with a whistle. The snake reared up and hissed at the offending intruder before slithering into the cool of the grass. Other animals, like skunks and porcupines, provide wonderful illustrations of defense mechanisms that do not involve flight from a dangerous situation. Luckily, these have never been close encounters.
3. Respect for nature
Through watching nature respond to us as a danger, I can teach my kids to respect the living beings we observe. Nature is fragile, a lesson we have learned through the accidental dismemberment of daddy long legs and lightning bugs left too long in a jar. These have been sad lessons to learn and reminders that we need to be good stewards of nature around us. Nature is also wild, it cannot be tamed or contained. I love to watch my children explore and experience nature, but at the end of the day, "Outside things stay outside".
I love when we experience nature that can be held and touched and explored up close. There are so many lessons children can learn from an intimate closeness with the natural world around them.
In what ways do you foster and encourage your children in their exploration of nature?