Late last summer, after a string of 100 degree plus days, we were all tired of our weekday pattern of going from our air conditioned house to our little temporary pool in the backyard and back to our air conditioned house, so I packed some sandwiches and drinks and took the kids on a picnic to a local park where they could safely play at a place where the river runs wide and shallow.
The local schools had started, so we had the whole park to ourselves. The kids ate their sandwiches and waded in the river with nets and buckets looking for rocks, minnows, and freshwater clams.
After a time, my youngest got tired of the sun so we retreated to our blanket on the shade for a snack. My daughter remained on the river bank digging in the sandy mud and my oldest sat in eight inches of water letting the current flow over him.
In this idyllic moment, a great white egret flew along the surface of the water with the sunlight gleaming brightly on its wings. My three year old turned to me and said, "Mommy, look a pelican!"
As I was explaining that the bird we saw was not a pelican like the brown pelicans we had seen flying along the waves at the beach the weekend before but it was in fact a great white egret, my daughter ran up shouting, "Mom, did you see the pelican fly by?"
Once again, I explained that we had seen a great white egret, not a pelican. I was answering my daughter's question about why the two large birds looked similar when they were flying when my son came up to us exclaiming, "Mom, I think I saw a pelican!"
In my son's defense, he is nearsighted and, on my instruction, had left his glasses in the car. But still...
We had just been camping at Half Moon Bay and watched hundreds of pelicans soaring along the waves and diving for fish. Every single one was brown. We looked up pelicans in our field guides and learned about their field marks, diet, behaviors. We even noted that the white pelicans don't live on our coast. We learned a lot, I thought, until I realized that I had been doing most of the learning. My kids on the other hand, were more interested in experiencing the sand and the waves and the wildlife. They remembered pelican after pelican flying across the waves, diving down and completely submerging themselves in the water. They gathered pelican feathers in every shade of brown and learned to "zip" them so they would be smooth. They remembered how a pelican looks when it flies (and it is similar to how a great white egret flies). They just forgot the details that we learned from our field guide that would have let them know that pelicans just don't venture to our part of California and the white pelicans stay on their own coast, thousands of miles from the muddy banks of the Stanislaus River.
My kids also know about great white egrets. I point them out in fields as we drive through the rural areas around our town and if we drive to my parents early enough in the morning, we will see them perched in the trees en route. What a sight that is!
Don't get me wrong, it is a great thing to know how a water bird lives and moves from observation. Perhaps even more important than knowing a string of facts about the bird that can be found in any guide book, including its precise name. But that doesn't make names unimportant. And I wanted my kids to not just know of the birds we see day to day, I wanted them to know them by name. I want them to know a blue jay from a bluebird, a duck from a loon, a seagull from a tern, and a pelican from an egret.
We are all meant to be naturalists, each in his own degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.
I needed to turn the table. After all, I am in charge of my kids' education. The nature experts in our family were our field guides (and their interpreter--me), the occasional informational sign in state and national parks, and Siri. In order to help my kids remember the details of what they learned in nature, I would have to give them ownership of their study of the natural world.
How we finally figured out a way of nature journaling that worked for us will be the subject of another post.