Not deferential enough: Will the last child in the woods please turn out the light?

Posted Wednesday, August 29, 2012 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Will the last child in the woods please turn out the light?

by Gina Hamilton

When I was a kid, we used to go down to my grandmother's house the last week before all the kids had to go back to school.

Because the tiny little cottage only had two bedrooms and one bathroom, the kids camped outside on the lawn, while the parents squeezed into the bedrooms and slept on the sofa. 

We had two older cousins, mostly already gone from home, but the three youngest sisters had eight kids among them, four girls and four boys, and we would split up into two tents, boys and girls, and the various dogs and cats and other critters that came with us, and let the sounds of the night lull us to sleep.

Next morning, we'd race to be the first inside ... did I mention the one bathroom? ... wriggle onto chairs and stools while Grandma made buckwheat pancakes, which she called "flapjacks," and bacon, and made some eggs with cheese cubes scrambled in. She'd toss whatever berries were still going into the flapjack batter, or slice up some of her apples and pitch them in, or, if there wasn't any fruit handy, a bit of her homemade blueberry jam. She'd pour us well water or lemonade, whichever we wanted, and as soon as our mothers were satisfied that we had brushed our teeth and braided our hair and changed our underwear, we eight would charge off into that last, golden summer week, the sun slanting down into sweet diagonals, and we'd not be seen until sunset.

We'd go to the beach, or to the municipal swimming pool, and come home and hang our towels on the line outdoors while we changed in the tent. Or we'd go canoeing or boating on the little canal, where it was safe for kids ... you could stand up in shoulder-deep water if you had to. We'd take peanut butter and jam sandwiches with us, and apples from my grandmother's trees, and homemade fudge, and eat lunch somewhere on a canal bank, or on a park bench. We'd all have our little canteens with us, and we'd fill them with a handy neighbor's hose when they ran dry.

In the afternoons, when the scent of goldenrod and black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne's lace, with her one fragile drop of blood right in the middle, would blow in from the east, we'd put on our walking shoes and our socks and head to the woods.

The woods. 

The woods had creeks and rocks and little wooden bridges over puddles of muck, in which lived all kinds of wildlife: snapping turtles, frogs, herons, fish of all kinds. We'd hear the occasional scream of what we always thought was a wild cat, but might have been some kind of bird. We'd find deer tracks and fox tracks and, occasionally, see one of these from afar. We learned how to remove ticks from one another without breaking off the heads in the skin.  We could even remove leeches if we had to.

The dogs would tag along with us, never on leashes, so we'd rarely see a large animal, but we did see porcupines and opossums and otters. And if we were out late, we'd see raccoons and even the odd skunk.

We learned from one another how to climb trees and walk carefully over fallen tree trunks across the river. We discovered all kinds of fungus and the tiny riparian plants that don't have stems or leaves. We learned about how insects and spiders are put together by observing them close up. We figured out which snakes and spiders were poisonous, and which weren't. Someone always had a Little Golden Field Guide -- that helped. We marveled at iridescent slime trails from snails and slugs. 

We collected seed pods and nuts and the first leaves, changing color, and added them to our shells and rocks and other small gifts of nature that would go to school with us the following week.

If we were interested enough, we had all winter to research them, and often I did, alone in my room or at the library. But the experience was the important thing, something one couldn't have by proxy.

We didn't need an adult to interpret for us; we may have made errors in reasoning, but we owned them. They were our errors, and we corrected them ourselves.

That is not how children learn today.

If it's not on a test, they don't learn it. If it is on a test, they learn what they must know to get the answer right.

Meanwhile, the woods, the beach, the rocks, the ponds, the tidepools, the creeks ... they are becoming devoid of a childish presence. A child may be able to tell you that an insect has three body segments ... if it's on a test somewhere ... but not what that means, not what it looks like.

It's time to get the kids back in the woods and out of the classroom. They should be mucking about in pond water, not practicing test-taking. They need to have the experience of nature. 

This is that last golden week. Make them buckwheat flapjacks this morning. Pack them a lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and apples and fudge. Take your children to the woods, and don't say a word to them.

Better still, wait for them in the car. They will be all right.

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