A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might: We felt awe when contemplating the works of Bach. The observers were in awe of the destructive power of the new weapon.
Natural history: n
1. The study and description of organisms and natural objects, especially their origins, evolution, and interrelationships.
a. A collection of facts about the development of a natural process or entity: the natural history of early hominids as revealed in the fossil record.
b. A work or treatise containing such facts.
This last one is defined by David Sobel in his book Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in Nature Education.
Ecophobia n.: a morbid fear of one's home or morbid or excessive fear of ecological disaster or deterioration.
So what is the problem? School-based science curricula have been developed to teach children about the prospects of global warming, the destruction of the rainforest, and the movement of pollutants through the food web while at the same time they do not teach children about the natural wonders in their own backyards. Children as young as first grade are taught about rainforest ecology and the loss of habitat in which they learn that in the time between recess and lunch "tens of thousands of acres of rainforest will be cut down in order to make way for fast-food 'hamburgerable' cattle," as Sobel puts it.
There are several problems with this approach to teaching about the environment. To begin with, small children need hands-on instruction in science. When a person has been on the planet only six or seven years, he has had little chance to experience the vacant lot next door or the woods outside of town, let alone be required to worry about the end of nature. Most of them, in North America at least, have never seen a rainforest and they have little idea of where one is or what it might look like.
Secondly, the science of ecology requires the student to understand a large number of complex biological interactions that happen at the organismal, community and ecosytem levels. These interactions between species, and between species and the environment require a basic understanding of non-biological concepts such as energy, and laws of conservation. And you can't see or touch these interactions. Although there are probably a few, highly gifted first and second graders who could imagine these large ideas, most little children would be better off without them for a while longer.
Does this mean little children cannot learn about ecology and the environment? Not at all. But why not go local? For one thing, it is right in front of us. Take the kids out and show them how the bees and butterflies pollinate flowers, which develop into fruits that we can eat. In this way, a small child will learn about the vital role that pollinators play in the environment. And the schools will not need to buy expensive curricula with all the bells and whistles. All a teacher would need is some library books, some inexpensive hand-lenses, and access to the outdoors over a period of time. A guest speaker from the university biology department who will talk to the kids for free would be an added bonus.
Really, the first thing we want to teach our small children about the environment is as close as the door garden, the trees at the back of the schoolyard, the garden, or the desert across at the edge of town. Because what we want to teach them is wonder and awe. We want them to have time to satisfy their curiosity about how a tadpole becomes a frog and what makes a plant grow 'big and strong.'
There will be plenty of time for them to learn about species interactions in rainforests far away, once they have experienced the joy of watching ants follow their little trails of formic acid to get food and bring it safely back to the anthill. They will be better equipped to take responsibility for whole ecosystems after they have taken responsibility for the family aquarium or birdfeeder. The study of rainforest ecology is much more appropriate for mid-schoolers and high schoolers, who have developed at least some ability for abstract thought.
Richard Louv in The Last Child in the Woods notes that most scientists started out their careers as small chasers of snakes, catchers of spiders and collectors of leaves. The great natural historians of the past began like E.O. Wilson, who spent the days of his childhood roaming the shores of Mobile Bay, bringing home shells and starfish, and exulting in the power of the waves and the awesome winds of storms. Or like the 'grand old man of Rocky Mountain Geology, David Love, who grew up roaming the mountains of Wyoming, testing his mettle against the blizzards and the droughts.
When I was a child roaming the woods and fields of Central Illinois, I did not imagine that I would be an ecologist who would do statistics at the computer. In fact, the only computer I knew of took up a whole floor of the IAA building downtown, and was kept behind glass windows in a clean room. No, I imagined being a geologist, roaming the hills and mountains, collecting rocks. Or a paleontologist, spending my days running the soft shales of the Morrison formation in my hands, finding the spectactular fossil of my dreams. Or as a Naturalist, studying how the plants and animals of the tall-grass prairie made a living.
It is not necessary to induce ecophobia into our kids in order to get them to care about nature. In fact, it may even be counter-productive. Inducing unnamable worries into the hearts of our children may even cause them to avoid thinking about nature. It may make them feel like aliens who don't belong to the earth. As the naturalist Robert Pyle wisely observed: "What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?"
As homeschoolers, we have taken the power of our children's education into our own hands. We don't need to let them be taught to fear nature. We are there with them, day after day. Take the little ones outside. Let them experience the power of the sun's heat, the smell of rain on a dusty road, the softness of freshly turned soil in their hands on a spring day in the garden. Take them outside every day and teach them awe and wonder.