Last week, my three-year-old started noticing (and chasing) what he calls “snow butterflies.” These white and very pale blue beauties are typically one of the first butterflies of spring. They are actually spring azures, but he doesn’t need to know that. “Snow butterfly” is a perfect name—it’s descriptive, memorable, and Max came up with it himself. Which takes the pressure off of me to identify the next butterfly we spot—which I almost certainly will not be able to do!
In my younger years, I had a short, mostly unsuccessful internship in environmental education. It was then that I learned this technique of letting children name trees, bugs, flowers, whatever natural treasures they find. “What would you call it?” is a useful question, in many contexts and for many reasons.
In her amazing essay, “The Sense of Wonder” (available at the Lawrence public library), Rachel Carson reminds us that we don’t need to give young children names and explanations, at least not always. We simply need to share a sense of wonder and pleasure at what we find.
She writes: If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. Parents often have a sense of inadequacy… “How can I possibly teach my child about nature—why, I don’t even know one bird from another!” I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.
And later: If a child asked me a question that suggested even a faint awareness of the mystery behind the arrival of a migrant sandpiper on the beach on an August morning, I would be far more pleased than by the mere fact that he knew it was a sandpiper and not a plover.
So, my job with young Max is simply to reawaken my senses—and my sense of wonder. No need to know much. I like the sound of that. Wonder what crazy-named natural treasures we’ll find today?