Friday, May 30, 2008

Urban Nature Study

My wife and I follow an educational philosophy known as Real Learning. The key insight is that we learn best through our intimacies: we enter more deeply into what we love. This insight applies in several ways. First, it means learning through great “living” books. Rather than studying the frontier with a textbook, for example, you read Laura Ingalls Wilder. Such books are worthy of intimacy. They draw the child in, to care about what he studies. Even encyclopedia reading comes alive when occasioned by a book one loves.

A second corollary of learning through our intimacies is “unschooling,” or child-directed learning. Rather than adults pushing children to study materials the adults care about, at a speed set by the adults, child-directed learning allows the child to study what he cares about, and to linger as long as he cares to, in order to learn what he can learn from a given material. This practice also assumes, of course, that children naturally want to learn. I think that’s a fair assumption. The schools have to teach us that learning is boring.

A third consequence is homeschooling, for two reasons. First, learning through one’s intimacies means learning at one’s own pace. It is fundamentally opposed to the classroom, which is, by its very nature, a cookie-cutter model of learning. Second, learning through intimacies means learning in a context of intimacy, with people one loves. It’s good to have friends one’s own age, but nothing can replace contact with one’s parents and siblings. The home is the proper milieu for sharing one’s loves.

A fourth way that many families apply learning through intimacies is in nature study. The image is of Mother sitting on her picnic basket in a rustic setting while the children explore, draw, journal, and bring things back to show her. They learn the beauty of the natural world not through a textbook, and not through being pushed, but by getting the opportunity to look and ponder. Part of the reason this is so popular among Real Learning families, I think, is because it so magnificently reveals the basic principles: nowhere else is it quite so obvious that children are made to learn, that they love to see things as they are, and ponder, and ask questions, and watch. This is learning at its best.

At first glance, it is also the greatest obstacle to Real Learning in the city. Typically, Real Learning nature study requires a copious environment, with lots of nature to watch, and it requires space and quiet to ponder. The rustic setting is no small matter.

My wife and I instinctively want to believe that nature study can work in the city. One approach we’ve taken is to talk about the nature that is the city. There is something very wrong—and, indeed, uninformed—about the assumption that nature is simply the absence of man. Watching buildings go up, people walk through a park on the way to work, the complicated ballet of city life (as Jane Jacobs said): this is not so different from watching rustic non-man nature. There’s something very profound here.

But the other night I had an experience that suggested another approach. I was out with my kids, three-and-a-half and one-and-a-half, babysitting while my wife was out. We happened upon some tiny ants—I don’t remember how we first noticed them—and spent maybe fifteen minutes (a long time by kid standards) just watching them, picking them up, letting them run across our hands. The kids were enchanted.

Not a hundred yards away we came across four mallard ducks, swimming in a man-made reflecting pool. We spent a full half-hour looking them in the eye. They thought we might have food, and were not going to give up until something better came along. So we watched their orange feet paddle in the water and walk on the sides, saw the beautiful blue feathers that hide under their wings and the fabulous spectrum of green on their heads. We saw how they swam around each other, and hopped up to the edge of the pool, and preened their feathers, and sometimes even reared up out of the water with a flap of the wings. We watched them jump for a couple of crumbs we found, jockey for position, and dismiss a piece of paper that wasn’t edible.

Five minutes down the sidewalk we came across some squirrels playing in a tree, and examined the flowers they had been chewing on on the ground. (I didn’t know that squirrels ate flowers, but this was definitely what they’d dropped.) The kids picked through the mulch around the tree, and noted the weight of different sticks.

When I finally pulled them away, and we were crossing a busy street, my three-year-old asked if we could find a tree with berries. Sorry, I chuckled, I don’t think there are any berry trees in the city. Not ten feet from the edge of the street we found a bush covered in tiny green berries; I suppose they’ll be red one day? And the kids picked at them for longer than you’d think!

While they were doing so, my three-year-old pointed to something I hadn’t even noticed, and said, “Papa, what’s that flying bug?” It wasn’t a flying bug, it was a spider, about as small as you can imagine, hanging on a thread I could neither see nor feel, but which I was able to grab hold of. We watched how the spider dropped down, catching himself on his thread, how he climbed up and down, how he waited to see what we’d do. He climbed up to my hand and, skittish, I tossed him aside. Maybe next time I’ll be less afraid of spiders!

And then in the subway we saw what we first thought was a mouse, but then concluded must be a rat, running along the platform. It made a little run at us, and the kids saw Daddy jump, then we followed it as it ran down the tunnel and out of sight. We noted the hunch-backed walk, with rear haunches far above its fore, and watched the way it zig-zagged, as well as its nonchalance as it looked for food without too great fear of us.

Pretty neat nature study. Of course, some purists might say the ducks aren’t “real” nature, since they weren’t afraid of man. I guess this deserves a longer essay, but let me just say that I think it is a very domesticated idea of nature that defines it by our absence. In the classical definition, nature is an interior principle of movement, which is to say, the duck is something, and the way we can modify it by our exterior presence is pretty insignificant compared to the nature it possesses in itself. City or no, ‘em are ducks.

Indeed, the trade-off of city “domestication” (though these were hardly domesticated creatures) is that we got up close. No way a wild duck is ever going to let you see its beauty the way these did. No way, indeed, a wild duck, or a forest rat, is going to let you see its nature, its own peculiar duckly or ratly way of behaving, like these did. Because these animals were “tame,” we could see their wildness more clearly.

But the other advantage of this urban nature study is that it was totally unplanned. We were, in fact, on our way home from an event at the Kennedy Center, one of the great music venues in the world. We’d heard maybe twenty minutes of a free concert by one of the great African and African-American women’s musical ensembles, complete with dancing, neat drums, and bizarre harmonies.

We found the ants after we’d gone outside to look at the fountains (a kind of nature study in itself). The ducks were swimming in the beautiful pools out front. The spider and the berries were on the way back to the subway, and the rat in the subway. In between, we stopped to sit at an outside table-top chess board, then got the kids their first ice-cream-truck popsicle, a sickening red-white-and-blue bomb pop.

At the ATM near the ice-cream truck, we ran into an acquaintance from church—someone whose name we didn’t even know, and certainly wouldn’t have ever sought out in another context. And on the train home we ran into an old co-worker—someone, indeed, that I parted with on not-altogether positive terms, and so a nice occasion for gentle reconciliation—as well as some people from a far-off place who overheard that I’m applying for a job in their home city.

One of the ironies of rural living is that in the country, nature is encountered only as a destination. I don’t doubt that country kids play outside a lot—but they play outside only when they specifically decide to go outside. I dare say we, as pedestrian urbanites, probably spend almost as much time outside as country folk. But we’re outside going to church, or the grocery store, or coffee, or the library—or the Kennedy Center and the ice-cream truck. Almost everywhere we go, we go on foot. I don't think the same thing happens when you're always driving to box stores.

On the model of learning by our intimacies, I think there is much to be said for the way urban nature appears along the way, in the context of our ordinary (and extraordinary) activities, not only as a destination in itself. It is healthy, I think, to “run into” ducks, and berries, and spiders, and rats, rather than finding them only when we seek them out. In a sense, they appear as more natural when we come upon them, rather than when we go to find them, as if they were museum pieces. It is healthy to see nature as our environment, the place of our encounter with friends and strangers and culture and popsicles. There is an intimacy, an immediacy, in all this, that I think makes it at least competitive with rustic, rural nature study.