No blog yesterday as I spent the day with my son’s kindergarten class as they took a field trip to Tilden Park — one of the original parks in the East Bay Regional Park District. Chatting with the other parents this morning I realize that it was not just the kids who learnt something knew — it was the parents as well. And it gave me a new perspective on the role a park can play as an outdoor classroom.
My hat goes off to our naturalist, Trent, who day in day takes out classes of kids excited to be out of school with their friends. He gets each group for maybe one hour during which time he has to keep them safe, calm them down, and hopefully impart a sense of wonder to his young charges. He had three simple rules: stay behind me; respect all living things (including your class mates); and have fun. He soon had the kids shouting out, “have fun” – which was itself fun as he pointed out.
His sense of wonder and enthusiasm was infectious for all of us. Who has ever really looked at a fly? Not only did Trent catch one and pass it around, he talked about how it uses “batesian mimicry” to pretend it’s a hornet. That led to an enthusiastic discussion of snakes and other animals that use similar techniques — what young kid doesn’t love a snake in disguise, especially one that looks poisonous? All that from a simple fly.
By the time we got to the pond the kids were ready to take charge and explore on their own. What appeared to be a stagnant pond covered in “scum” turned out to be a rich ecosystem teeming with life on a small scale — perfect for eager young naturalists. Larvae, slimy newt eggs, water snails, side-swimmers that look like shrimp, and of course the ever popular backswimmer that breathes through its bottoms. The kids were soon dipping their nets and emptying the contents into their explorer trays (in reality TV-dinner trays cleverly repurposed). There’s nothing more exciting that discovering a water snail or unknown bug for yourself.
During my time at Save the Redwoods League I helped provide the funding to get thousands of kids out to the woods on naturalist-led hikes. This was the first time I had been along as a participant and watched it all unfold through the eyes of a kindergartener. I can think of no better way to start learning about the natural world than spending an hour dipping a pond teeming with life. I will certainly remember this trip for a long time. For me it also underscored the importance of having parks close to where our kids are — and not just parks with swings and slides and ballparks. Parks with ponds and brambles and trees. You don’t need a Yosemite-sized park to introduce kids to nature. Just a spot that has been allowed to run a little wild.