Tracking in the Mud

All things children and nature

Enjoying Nature with Children: No Need for Names April 12, 2010

Filed under: Getting Outside with Kids,Seasons,Spring — Sandy Beverly @ 9:51 am
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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?


Neighborhood Coyote April 6, 2010

Filed under: Neighborhood Nature Notes — Sandy Beverly @ 9:24 pm

For my outdoor wanderings, I almost always go to a natural area near my home in central west Lawrence.  It’s not the nicest of areas; there’s litter, and the woods is full of invasive honeysuckle (which really changes the character of a forest).  But I can walk there, which means that whatever I observe and experience teaches me something about my neighborhood.

Lately, I’ve been heading in that direction even when I’m going out for a stress-relieving power walk.  Who knows what I might learn, even when my mind is a million miles away?  And tonight, under a yellow, rumbling sky, I spotted a coyote.  I didn’t get a great view, but it was enough.  Enough to know that it was a coyote, enough to make my day, enough to keep me coming back.

So I will go to bed tonight knowing, firsthand, that this coyote and I share a territory.  Doesn’t that make the world a better place?


Neighborhood Nature Notes–April April 4, 2010

Filed under: Neighborhood Nature Notes,Seasons,Spring — Sandy Beverly @ 9:16 pm
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This is a log of nature observations for my neighborhood south of West Junior High.  Want to share your observations?  See below.  Or start your own nature notebook at home.  Earlier Nature Notes are posted here.

April 2010

  • April 30–Spotted a heron in our neighborhood.  Looks like this will be the 3rd year for them to nest here.
  • April 30–Black locust trees are full of blossoms.  Stand under one and smell the sweetness!
  • April 26–Yards, sidewalks, and streets are filled with the “helicopter” seeds of maple trees, alsa called “keys” and “samaras”.  Flowers from oak trees also abound.
  • April 15–About an hour after sunset, one lone firefly is flashing
  • April 12–White redbuds are blooming.  Lilacs are close.  Spotted some poison ivy, sigh….
  • April 10–Max is seeing lots of “snow butterflies”, actually spring azures.  This is a sign of spring.
  • April 8–Heard first-of-year thrasher in the neighborhood.  Their songs come in pairs.  Listen here.
  • April 6–For the first time ever, heard a frog in our neighborhood.  At sunset, after an evening of rain.  I think it was a western chorus frog.
  • April 5–Our first real spring thunderstorm?  Occurs soon after dawn.  A couple cardinals keep singing through the storm.
  • April 4–Redbuds are budding.  Elm tree seeds are dangling.   (See elm tree seeds and other tree seeds and flowers in this blog about neighborhood nature in Chicago.)
  • April 4–Kevin spots butterflies in our backyard!
  • April 2–Forsythia and vinca are in full bloom; the invasive Japanese honeysuckle is leafing out.
  • April 1–Turkey vultures have been back for several days.  Watch for them soaring, with wings in a V-shape.   Some birders say it’s not spring until the vultures return.

Want to share your observations?  Add a comment or e-mail me ( and I will add to the log.  Send first name, age (if you’d like), observation, and your location in relation to a public school.

Or, start your own nature notebook at home, with your family.  Sometimes hard to keep at it, but lots of fun to look back at previous years to see if events are happening earlier or later.  We got a big kick out of observing our first-of-year bat on the same day two years in a row.


Nature AND Nintendo? April 3, 2010

Filed under: Getting Outside with Kids — Sandy Beverly @ 1:09 pm
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Last month, in a story called Nature vs. Nintendo, the Lawrence Journal World asked me and other local moms how we balance screen time and outdoor time for our kids.  Helping my kids appreciate the natural world ranks high among my core parenting values, and I feel like we’re doing a reasonable job in this domain. But we’ve struggled to find the right rules and expectations for screen time.  And it has certainly become harder as my older son ages out of the sheltered preschool years.

A part of me feels guilty because my kids have any screen time at all.  “Wouldn’t it be great to have no-TV kids?” I think to myself.  No worries about the content of TV shows, movies, video games.  No negotiating screen-time rules.  Plus, the sense of pride or satisfaction that I imagine comes from raising completely unplugged kids.  Mostly, there’s a part of me who wants what tracker-naturalist-mentor Jon Young calls “feral” kids: kids who catch frogs, call in owls, build shelters from sticks, and sneak up on foxes.

We don’t have a gaming system, but we do allow certain TV shows, movies, and computer games, and my reasons come down to these:

  1. I need a regular breather from parenting–I can’t speak for anyone else, but, for me, parenting is hard work.  I sometimes struggle to keep my patience.  I always struggle to find enough time for my part-time job, my household chores, and, yes, my sanity-savers, like exercise and walks in the woods.  I struggle to find enough quiet. So, I plan my kids’ limited screen time almost neurotically so that I can have 30 minutes or an hour to myself.
  2. I want my kids to fit in–Although I greatly admire the parents who have chosen to surround themselves with other unplugged families (mainly through home-schooling or the Prairie Moon Waldorf community), this has not been our path.  So of course my seven-year-old has friends who play video games.  It sounds insane, but I believe he needs some basic joystick skills to navigate the world of elementary school friendships.  This seems especially true for boys.
  3. I don’t want to be the parent who always says “no”–My sweet seven-year-old calls me occasionally from a neighbor’s house to ask if he can watch a movie.  Sometimes I say yes, sometimes no.  But it hurts me a little every time.  When is he going to start wondering why he has to call and ask?  When is he going to feel more than just short-term disappointment when I say no?  When is he going to feel real resentment because the limits we set are more limiting than those he sees in other homes?

This last one keeps me up at night.  And I’m beginning to believe that the consequences of too many no’s will be more harmful than the consequences of lightening up.

So…..  I’m trying to find a new set of rules or guidelines—something that gives my son some more latitude when he’s with friends but something I can live with.  I guess my husband and I will never have feral kids.  But, with the right set of rules and relationships, can we still have happy, well-rounded, cloud-watching, owl-calling, earth-loving, frog-catching kids?  Can they wield both sticks and joysticks?  Can it be both Nature and Nintendo?