The Joys of Teaching Nature to Kids

I had the amazing opportunity to teach earth/wilderness skills to kids. What amazed me most was how receptive to nature they were when left to learn from their own experiences. We seem to have labels for everything these days but “labeling” is a term that nature doesn’t understand. It does however, understand direct experience.

The teaching principles used in our school were loosely based on a great book called “Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature.” The method allows kids to make their own theories about the natural world without being told the “proper” names for what their five senses experienced. Our job as instructors was to answer questions with more questions.

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An example of this technique is an animal track. If a student found a track, they typically would ask us what animal made the track. If we told them it was a deer, the lesson would be over. If we asked them something like “Does it look like your dog’s track?’ they would study it further. “Do you think it’s a bear?” we would ask. “No, bears leave bigger tracks.” “Does it have toes like us?” “It only has two but they don’t look like toes,” they might answer.

Telling kids the answer to all of their questions stunts the “mini detective” inside all kids. Kids love to investigate but in the age of technology, many kids have learned that it’s easier to “Google it” and move on to the next question. Direct experience expands awareness and nature is one of the best teachers.

The “Coyote” method of learning is addictive and typically the young students start using it on others. I love when a student’s parent asks a question and the student says something like “ Well dad, what do you think that could be used for?”

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Naturally, our love of nature carries over to our children and on down the line it goes. Most of us have been conditioned to telling our kids everything like “Be careful, that’s hot!” “Don’t touch that bush, its got thorns!” And of course we want to keep them safe. But the experiences they will remember the most are the ones where curiosity led them to their own theories. It matters little what the “proper” names for natural things are. A child will get much more out of pricking their finger on a gooseberry bush than mom telling him not to touch it and what it’s called.

Out in the wild, there very few human voices and signs. It’s amazing what happens when a child is allowed to listen, to smell, to feel and to touch (tasting should be left to the advise of an experienced parent) the myriad of wonderful things that nature offers.

My favorite story is that of a fellow instructor and expert primitive fire maker who, after 25 years of making friction fires, learned an easier way of cutting a notch in his fire board from a 10-year-old student. The kid simply walked up and said “what would happen if you tried this?” It was so simple and effective that we still can’t figure out why we hadn’t ever thought of it. True story!

Photo credit: Wikimedia