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Noah's Children book cover.Excerpted from Noah's Children: Restoring the Ecology of Childhood, by Sara Stein.

Once, not so long ago, children grew up with a hands-on understanding of plants, animals, and the interconnectedness of all life. Why is everything so different now, and what can we do about it?

Fifty children sat imprisoned in their school bus while a park naturalist climbed aboard to “bring them under control.” He had told me that this had to be done on the bus because once the children spilled out onto the parking lot, there was no way to get their attention or bring them to order.

He explained the rules. The students were to walk in pairs and never leave the trail. They were to keep their hands at their sides, not to pick any flowers, and not to touch so much as a leaf. They could ask questions when the group stopped to listen to what the naturalist explained but should not talk among themselves. “If I can hear you,” said the naturalist, “so can the animals.”

The children were two fifth-grade classes from an urban school in Michigan, and this field trip was an adjunct to their study of glacial geology. They were certainly in the right place: the park occupies 200 acres of land that, during the Ice Age’s Wisconsin Stage, which ended about thirteen thousand years ago, lay between two lobes of a glacier. Although blocks of ice toppled from the melting mass onto the land – and these huge blocks accounted for the park’s sand and gravel soil, its steep kames and boggy kettles – the interlobal area has never been scoured clean of life by the glacier itself. Its biodiversity was therefore astounding: five hundred species of plants, including over a dozen orchids and a number of endangered species, two of which were the only remnants of their kind in the state. The composition of the forest ranged from southern trees like tulip poplar to boreal ones like larch, so I knew what a treasure of diversity I was about to see.

The children trooped off the bus and, after some milling around to partner with friends, lined up facing the naturalist for his introductory lecture. The descent from kame to kettle would be 800 feet – and the climb back the same. Groan. The children’s home city lies as level as water in the bed of an ancient lake: few of them had ever climbed a hill.

“Ernest,” said one of the class teachers, “you remember that: thirteen thousand years ago.” “Janice,” she added, “you remember this: ice one mile thick.” Harry was having trouble with his arms: they kept flailing around, jostling other children. A teacher moved to his side. By prior arrangement with the naturalist, wise guys were to walk with teachers.

So we all set off along the gritty trail to our next lecture stop in an old field where one student, posing as a block of ice, was used to demonstrate how the weight of the ice block forms a kettle hole, while the dirty water melting from the top and running down the sides deposits a rim of raised sand and gravel kames. “These are vocabulary words,” warned a teacher. “Remember kame and kettle.

The next stop was the poison-ivy lesson. “How many leaves?” asked the naturalist, holding a sample by its stem, which he had wrapped carefully in a spicebush leaf. “Three,” ventured several voices, but the naturalist was expecting that wrong answer and so enjoyed the planned opportunity to explain that it was a single, compound leaf made up of three leaflets. It was late September; the poison ivy was beginning to turn a stunning scarlet. Classes are not allowed to use the park for collecting fall leaves because poison ivy breaks into those three leaflets that are hard to identify and therefore might be picked up by mistake. I plucked a spicebush leaf to crush and sniff – but secretly, not wanting to be caught.

We descended, stop by stop, to wetland, accompanied by a growing vocabulary: muck, marsh, bog, fen, meadow, karr. The naturalist pointed out a rare poison sumac growing twenty feet off the trail in the web, shrubby karr but not the equally rare fringed gentian blooming brilliantly and by the score at our very feet.

My own partner on this walk was an avid amateur naturalist, about my age, named Maryann. The sight of the gentians moved us simultaneously to nearly identical reveries. As a child, I once, and never again, had found fringed gentians blooming in the orchard. Maryann, also, and only once, had come upon the flower in her youthful wanderings. Both of us, stricken by the purity of its color and the delicate perfection of its form, had held that moment of discovery in a halo of wonder for decades.

None of the fifty eleven-year-olds asked what they were. By the end of the next climb, to pristine oak savanna, and faced now with the continuing uphill trek back to the parking lot, the children were tiring. Harry’s restless arms swung back to tease the boy behind him, who began what soon became a chorus, “Are we almost there?” This was against the rules: the children had been told they would be “there” when they could see the school bus, and not before.

We saw the school bus through the trees; we reached the asphalt. And, for the first time, the children came to life: they were to have a picnic in the park.

Read this sentence carefully; it’s from The New York Times: “Outside, summer beckons, with bikes to be ridden, video games to be played, cartoons to be watched, Barbies to be pampered for hours on end.”
Now, I know some errors slip past editors, and this certainly was one of those, but some errors also point to a truth, and this was one of those as well: the author apparently couldn’t think of just what the “teasing afternoon breeze wafting through the windows” was tempting third-grade students to do outdoors, once they were released from remedial summer classes in a city public school. What do children do when they are outside and out of sight? The middle years of childhood are largely played out behind our backs. There’s no telling where children might wander from the academic grounding we think we give to them.

I gave the boys field lenses so they could examine the stomata on the underside of leaves, the geometry of pollen grains, the anatomy of bees’ legs, the garnet gems in grains of sand. They set leaves afire with the lenses. They crisped ants. I duly took them to the American Museum of Natural History when they were in elementary school to show them an exhibit on human evolution that featured sculptured reconstructions of the facial features of various species based on fossil evidence. I didn’t find out until they were men that as a result of that lesson they had been able to identify in the woods a Neandertal campsite strewn with ancient hammer stones and streaked with blood evidence of human sacrifice.

The afternoon of the day I walked the park with that paired line of fifty children, I was taken to an altogether different and highly unusual demonstration of childhood education. The teacher ran a preschool at her suburban home whose modest play yard bordered on a municipal park. Her home also served as a day-care center for former students, who were dropped off by the school bus and stayed until picked up by their parents at the end of the working day.

We arrived after the preschoolers had gone home but just as the school bus arrived with five ex-students: four girls and a boy, ranging from seven to twelve. A few years before, the same children, then aged from four to nine had participated with their teacher in researching flood control and water quality in the local river. With their mentor, they had petitioned the town to allow them to plan a retention basin in the park, applied for and gotten funding for the project, hired a backhoe to excavate the basin, and planted the catchment area with plugs and seeds of wetland prairie species. Several of the children had given formal presentations to the municipal government (one standing before an audience of 250 people) and conducted interviews with the press. All the children, in mud above their ankles, had planted the prairie.

During that portion of my Michigan visit, I was staying with my niece Leila, who teaches heat exchange and fluid dynamics to sophomore physics students at the state university. She is one of those gifted teachers who makes every effort to inspire students to really grasp the subject, to think it through, to make it theirs in so deep and comfortable a way that they can use their knowledge creatively in the same way that one can whittle any figure once the hands know wood and blade. But Leila was finding the going rough: her students aspired to know no more than how to reach the answer, which formula to use, how to score well on what would be the physics equivalent of a kame-and-kettle test.

Naturally, I compared the children of the morning with the children of the afternoon, and it would be belaboring the point to explicate at length the obvious differences between those who walk a trail with hands at sides and minds on tests and those who best recall squishing plugs of switchgrass into gooey mud. Both may learn vocabulary (or they may not), but the trendy “hands-on education” hardly begins to convey the contrast between memorizing the fact that muck soil is made by decaying plants, and planting the makers of muck soil.

Yet after the mud-loving children had finished impressing this adult with the considerable depth of their knowledge and passion for water purity, they ran off, as if by common consent, on a tide of ebullience, dodging the undertow of their education duties. Or so it seemed to me: they surged as a unit toward the “Porcupine Trees.”

This was a stand of spruces, closely spaced but enclosing a dark circle of prickly-needled ground, and entered through a single opening among the trunks. I wasn’t invited. I followed anyway but not far, because, as I emerged out of the hot sun into the cool opening, they were already way beyond me, high up in the trees. I leaned my back against a tree trunk, bemused by this generational reversal, remembering my own pine hideaway from which, as a girl, I spied on the mundane doings of adults, at roof level, listening to their terrace talk show below.

I tried to catch some shred of these children’s privacy, but they knew my eyes and ears were turned on them, and they grew shy.

Like animals.

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Updated: Oct 19, 2006.