A Spring Walk

by Michael Rossman

        Spring's fragrance pours through the open window as we finish breakfast. After a week of late showers, Jaime's hot to do something interesting. "You need exercise, dad," he proclaims, with a kindergartener's cunning. "Let's go explore."

        Outside, the sun is glorious. Our neighborhood lies before us like a modest Eden, with every bush and fence, even the cracked sidewalks, radiant in new light. "Let's just wander around and see what's here," I say. "You lead."

        I've taken Jaime on exploring walks ever since he was two. They've been important as a way for him to get to know the world around him -- our neighborhood, our physical setting, and the lives and activities that surround us -- not only of other humans, but also of the plants and humble animals that still thrive in our paved-over habitat. Such walks have been important to me too, not only as a time of contact with my child, but as a way to explore the world with him as a learner myself. Being with Jaime enables me to see the world, not through his eyes but newly; makes me realize how little I know and understand; and gives me an excuse to enjoy learning more. Each time we explore, I see things I've never noticed before; each time I return with him to study the simple guides that have taught us about what we see, we both learn more.

[We Look at a Plant]

        Jaime stops at the corner where dandelions have sprouted beside the telephone pole, to blow wishes to the wind. I snap a fresh flower-head from its stalk. "Look here," I say, teasing its heart apart with my thumbnail till dozens of tiny yellow flames tumble in my palm. "Each one is a flower, each one makes a seed."

        "And a parachute?" he asks dubiously.

        "I imagine," I affirm, never having checked but confident of the logic. Jaime's already tearing half-closed heads apart, to see if he can catch the parachutes forming. But I find them first, and thrust the evidence at him.

        "That one's got aphids," says Jaime. Indeed, its base is covered with plump little bodies, almost the same tint of green. "Is that the sap they're sucking?" He eyes the white latex oozing from the severed stem.

        "Yep. Let's try it." He hesitates. "Dandelions are edible," I remind him. I've made it clear that you can't go around tasting things without knowing what they are, and that they're safe. We checked dandelions out in the edible plant guide, and had them in salad last spring; but the raw sap does look strange.

        Jaime tastes it, makes a face, and I agree. He turns to hunting aphids. Their camoflage solved, we find them all through the dandelions -- a few on the leaves, but by far the most on the tender flower-bases. We wonder why, until we realize that the sap must flow most plentifully right where the flowers and seeds are forming.

        "We could spend all morning on this plant!" says Jaime, torn between fascination and impatience.

        "If we really look at it," I agree. "Hey, why do you suppose its leaves have these prickles?" But he's off already, moving down the block.

[The Learning Goes Deeper Than Science]

        Through such simple explorations, Jaime is learning more than the outer matter of beginning science -- the names and functions and ecological relations of various plants and animals. He is learning to pay attention to the world, and to expect that attention will be rewarded by understanding and insight. He's learning to approach the world in a spirit of exploration, open to the unexpected and the unknown; and in a spirit of encounter, touching and tasting as much as is safe.

        To hold the slug, or let a bee walk on his hand -- as he does with more ease than I, having taught me how -- prepares him to deal with unpopular ideas and anxious situations in areas far from science. He is also learning to look into what is hidden, and to find it often more interesting than what is obvious.

[We Turn Something Over]

        By the time I catch up, Jaime's turning over a board in an untended garden border. On its underside, a wood-rotting fungus spreads its mycelium like a white embroidery. Lush grasses frame the exposed earth, but the grass-stems that lay beneath the board are white. I tell Jaime that's because the plant won't waste energy making chlorophyll until it can use it -- until it can find sunlight to trap with green magic, giving it the power to make its own food. Looking closer, we see that the stems turn slowly yellow where they approach the edges, and suddenly green as they emerge. Jaime grasps the pattern. "They're all trying to get out to the light!" Sure enough, they look like his sketch of a bicycle wheel, the wiggly spokes confused in the center but radiating clearly out to the rim. We imagine them as if they were slow animals seeking the light, and agree that whatever they use for sight must be very sensitive, for the board was quite flat to the ground.

        Beneath the pallid stems, dozens of pill-bugs are still scrambling to hide from the light and dehydration. Jaime pries some out, holds them up to me, most curled up in neat armor on his palm. "These big ones won't roll up," he complains.

        "They're sow-bugs, not pill-bugs." I remind him of the differences: flatter profile, not glossy, can't roll up. "I bet they have a harder time turning over, too."

        Jaime flips one over for a test; it promptly flips back. "You're wrong," he crows, delighted to catch me out. I tell him he must experiment with more than one, to prove this. He flips another over. As its little legs spread wide to right itself, he asks, "What's all that white stuff?"

        Half the sowbug's underside is covered with it, a piece has fallen off. I look closer. It's squirming. "They're babies! She's carrying them around!"

        "Oooh," says Jaime, in a tone reserved for fawns and baby bunnies. Meanwhile the mother has righted herself nearly as quickly as the first sowbug. We put her back under the stems, with a hundred wee babes still attached. Jaime's extra-careful about replacing the board, as I have taught him, so that the small creatures' homes beneath won't dry out.

[Learning the Skills of Science]

        Besides deep attitudes of openness, inquiry, and care for the living world, our excursions also teach Jaime the basic skills of science. He is learning how to make precise, detailed observations; and to observe without interfering, as best he can. He is learning to make reasonable hypotheses, relating what he sees to what he knows; and to test his hypotheses, by experiments that make sense.

        Grass and sowbugs may be humble subjects, and our lessons from them simple, but the skills he's learning are this formal and fundamental. Any child old enough to speak can be helped to learn them, through such explorations. Though central to science, these skills are not simply scientific but are valuable throughout one's life. They are not all one needs to run a business or conduct a relationship, but they are as important here as in biological research.

[We Poke in the Gutter]

        In the gutter, a drift of dead leaves has lodged behind a tire. We poke through them with a stick. The moist layers are rich with earthworms, scrubbed and gleaming. Jaime selects a huge one. I show him the pencil-sized hole we've uncovered, in a dirt-filled crack in the concrete.

        "It came from there?" asks Jaime.

        "Yes, but look. Pull these." Three dead leaves, curled loosely in a cone, are sticking up oddly. They come out easily, leaving another round hole, as large as the first. "A worm was pulling them downstairs to eat."

        "I thought they ate dirt!"

        "They eat dead plant stuff," I tell him. "Sometimes it's mixed up with dirt. Here's how they get rid of the dirt and the plant parts they can't use." I take a big nightcrawler, hold its head, and stroke slowly and firmly down its body, until the brown worm-cast emerges from its rear in glistening coils. "This doesn't hurt the worm, if you're gentle." Jaime notices the bright scarlet blood-vessel running down the worm's back, and we watch how it works as a heart, pumping jagged pulses of blood towards the head.

        Beside the curb, dozens of small, rounded extrusions dot the moist ground. "Here's worm-casts, all over. The dirt must be really rich with plant-stuff." Jaime pokes one with a twig, and it tips over, delighting him with the small round hole underneath, clear evidence of its origin. He wants to turn them all over, to find the largest hole, but I'm keen to move on.

[Look Closely]

        Enjoying the brisk shifts of wind, we stride past flowering borders -- but must pause when Jaime spots a big bumblebee tumbling clover-blooms in a shaggy lawn, to admire its methodical haste.

        And when we do, we're lost again. For every time we stop to really pay attention, the rich complexity unfolds as far as we care to follow. Under the lawn's shaggy edge, Jaime finds a large slug. As it glides up his finger, we see its breathing-hole open in one side, take a slow gulp of air. Looking closer, we see tiny white specks moving quickly over its back, seeking shade. We'd see specks moving on them too, if we had a microscope.

        For even the bareness of bare earth is an illusion. Where we stoop to study the moist soil, we find it greened by delicate growths of moss. Jaime pulls me down on the lawn's edge, to ask about the tiny spore-cases waving above the moss. We lie together, imagining ourselves moving through this miniature, jeweled forest, playing with other specks we see, that jump like rabbits. When we recognize their fierce hunter, the spider seems as large as a wolf, until we sit back to see it in our scale, small as a pinhead.

[Learning Together]

        Such imaginative transformations are as vital to science as its more methodical skills. It's helpful for children to practice them together in these early years, before school teaches them that science is one thing and art quite another.

        As for my own transformation, I quickly lost my initial embarrassment, at being caught poking at bugs with my son by a stranger's curb, wondering about the force that drives the green fuse through the flower -- as you will, if you take such walks of exploration with your own child.

        The deepest reason to take them is more intimate than scientific. Your child will learn from you, whatever you do. If you walk your neighborhood never really noticing the ground beside your feet, the bush you brush by, you teach your child that this is how to be. Among the most precious gifts you can give, is to let your child grow up seeing you as a person involved in learning, wanting to know more about the world around.

        To explore it together this way takes no more effort than a walk now and again as the seasons change; and no preparation, for the world is generous to the inquiring eye, however naive. Still, books are a joy, and teach one to ask more. Half an hour spent afterwards with your child and a guidebook, reading about the plants or animals you've found on your walk, is a golden investment -- not simply for the facts you'll both accumulate, but for what it teaches your child about how to relate reading to experience, and how to support a self- chosen path of learning.

[Going Farther Afield]

        On the next block, we lift a loose slab and find a small salamander, its moist skin glistening. As Jaime's still shy with them, I hold it for a while, showing him how. And what a comfort it is, to know the few animals to be wary of, in poking around this way. In our town these include only a centipede, two reclusive spiders, and rare scorpions, plus of course the bees and wasps -- but wherever you are, the knowledge is liberating, as it grants you the freedom to handle everything else.

        The curriculum we explore in our walks is offered wherever grass sprouts in a sidewalk crack, and is rich enough in any vacant lot to invite a lifetime of study. One way to begin learning from it more systematically is to focus on a particular plant or animal, and think about what you see as you poke around. A hunt for garden snails teachs us that they strongly prefer certain plants and conditions; and prepares us to wonder why they aren't in someone's delicious border, and to interpret the fragments of old shells there as evidence of mass poisoning.

        Another way is to be more systematic simply in seeing what is there. Take a piece of white paper or cardboard, lay it beneath weeds and shrubs, and shake them vigorously. Something interesting always tumbles down -- thrips and leafhoppers from the leaves, beetles and their larvae from the flowers. Do it often enough, and your child will learn that each kind of plant harbors its own characteristic population of parasites, and how they develop with the seasons.

        Yet another way is to take a simple idea, and follow it out through your walk. Once your child grasps that the function of leaves is to catch light, he or she can understand why so many ground-hugging weeds spread their leaves in delicate rosettes, to avoid overlapping them. To follow the idea further -- peeking into bushes to discover the bare interiors within their green surfaces, comparing how the trees arrange their canopies -- is to help your child not only to grasp the meaning of the forms of plants, but to develop the sense that all the forms of life and world are meaning-full.

        There's no end to the journeys of learning that you can help your child begin by such simple means; nor limit to the pleasure of going along for awhile.

[Capsule Advice for Parents and K-1-2 Teachers]

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