Stories, at their root, are a form of exploration. We use them to live vicariously. They teach not only through the intellect but by opening up our emotional channels. They make us receptive to their message by entertaining us. Stories integrate our emotions, our imagination, and our reason as they guide us on the journey to their message. This is why stories are so powerful. Done well, their message imprints in us because it speaks to and engages all our human faculties at once. For this reason stories are powerful teaching tools. And good storytellers are powerful teachers.
Some books can be so overloaded with facts and light on story that they will make your child resistant to learning unless they are particularly interested in learning about the subject already. Some books can be incredibly entertaining but so far removed from your child’s local wildlife that they do very little to connect your child with the nature that they see and interact with on a daily basis. And some books can be so guilt ridden that they sever the feelings of closeness your child has with nature by making them feel like they are “bad” humans or guilty by association.
By far the most effective stories are those that strengthen your child’s feeling of connection with nature and encourage them to enter into their own personal relationship with it.
When I first started teaching environmental science I didn’t get this. I was a newly graduated environmental scientist who was hired to teach environmental science in Yosemite National Park. I taught students from elementary through high school. I thought that simply meant teaching them the facts. I made up flashcards and games to teach about the geology of Yosemite Valley and taught a plethora of interesting facts about the plants and animals that lived there using silly songs and rhymes, jokes, and riddles. The children had fun, and were receptive to the trivia but I always wondered how long they would retain it.
Then one day I happened to lead my group passed another more experienced instructor’s group. It was the last day. My kids and I were on our way to learn about the oak-meadow ecosystem. We (I) had many fact-filled activities planned. His group was lying on their backs in the meadow with their eyes closed, backpacks and leg splayed out at odd angles, and faces turned to the sun.
At first I was annoyed, but then a jolt of understanding ran through me. Those kids looked so amazingly content, so connected to their surroundings. And I realized this was the only time some of these kids would ever come to Yosemite.
If I could come to Yosemite only once in my life what would I want to remember? The co-evolution of squirrels, oaks, and fire? Or the sun warm on my face, the smell of hot grass, the feeling of lying there in that meadow eyes closed knowing that I was completely surrounded by massive granite towers and I only had to open my eyes to see them again? And equally importantly, when I was older and not around teachers that could guide me to learn, what memory would instill in me the greatest desire to learn more about nature on my own?
This was a huge lesson for me that transformed my teaching. From that day forward I did not give up on facts, I just learned that facts are useless without first establishing a connection. I learned that the most important thing a naturalist educator can give is encouragement of a personal relationship with nature. This generates not only receptiveness to learning but a drive to learn that survives long after the teacher has said goodbye. And nature is an amazing teacher of its own accord.
So, what does all this have to do with books? I guess I would like to suggest applying the above lessons to picking out nature books for your child. For example, pick books:
Below are some recommended books, particularly for children in the Pacific Northwest, which Bella Ormseth and I put together. I have organized them under headings based on the different connections your child will have with them. Some children, for example, will identify with books about picking berries, especially at the end of our Northwest summer where all kinds of berries are plentiful. Some were selected because the characters are species we see locally. And some do not have local species but teach very valuable lessons about all the different kinds of personal connections one can have in nature. Feel free to read this list and suggest more! And also consider making up your own stories with your children that fit their needs and experiences. Click on the link below for the list of books.
Children’s Nature Book List this will take you to a Vashon Nature Center page with children’s book recommendations.
You might be interested in recommended local field guides and resources on children and nature observation from the Vashon Nature Center website as well.
Initially, the most important thing stories can do is help children in establishing their own connection with nature. A feeling of connection with nature will drive them to explore further on their own, and to develop compassion and love for the green world. Then, they will likely want to learn more about their home lands and animals and want to act responsibly towards them. At this point you can encourage your children by providing books with more in depth information on what they are most interested in which will deepen their relationship with nature further. Ultimately, as your children continue to develop their relationship with nature, they will not only learn more about the world around them. They will also learn more about themselves.