This week, I was invited by elder son’s fabulous Pre-K teachers to lead his class on a “rainforest nature hike” out behind the school. Miss Sue, Miss Samantha (as they are universally known) and I shepherded the crew beyond the chain link limits of the outdoor play area and off into a small woods with a shallow stream running through. Once there, the kids didn’t need much leading at all, except maybe to be shown how to roll away a rock or log and see what lives underneath it. But given a woods, a stream, and some logs, kids innately get it. And so they waded into the stream, and rolled logs, and skidded down slopes and swung bug nets at each other’s heads for an hour or so. I showed them a few things: raccoon prints in the mud, some water striders, sow bugs in a rotting log, but really, I was superfluous.
Which is why I beg everyone, regardless of science background, or nature knowledge, to let your kids go outside to a woods with a stream in it. Or an abandoned parking lot with weeds overrunning it. Or, if you are very fortunate, a sprawling wildlife preserve. But don’t wait until vacation, or until you learn more about the native birds, or until your kids are old enough to look through the right end of the binoculars. The perfect is the enemy of the good, after all, and if you wait until everything is just the way you want it to be, your kids will be gone from you and that’s the end of that.
If you think you need a pristine wilderness, you don’t. The stream we waded in issues from a cement pipe under the road, and meanders past axles, tires, and broken bricks. There was broken glass and an odd smell in the air. The woods were so narrow that you could see clear through them to the apartment building opposite. But if it’s what you’ve got, then go there. A trip to a well groomed playground is great in its own way, but there’s no substitute for stream walking or rock turning.
If you think you need encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, you don’t. That’s what field guides are for. Or google. Don’t worry about what will happen if you can’t answer their questions. They don’t mind that. Just don’t bullshit them. They won’t lose respect for you because of your lack of knowledge, but they will if you pretend to knowledge you don’t possess. Gather your courage, and admit you don’t know, and you invite them to find out with you. And there’s nothing in this world that’s better than that.