Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/April 1914/Nature-Play
By CHARLES LINCOLN EDWARDS, Ph.D.
DIRECTOR OF NATURE-STUDY, LOS ANGELES CITY SCHOOLS
CHILDREN have a natural interest in all things that are alive, and especially in such comrades as the dog and cat. The nature-study that does not appeal to this interest is worthless. Without formal lessons and examinations and stimulated only by the spirit of play, the child may get an understanding of the other animals that live in the world about him. This is a recreation subject, with the world for its playground; wherein a deep-lying sympathy, bred through the ancestral ages of growth near to the heart of nature, shall lead the child into the joy of living and the happiness of love and knowledge. Nature-play, rather than nature-study, is the key to this wonderful fairyland, of which the child is a part.
In the elementary schools, there should be the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn which have always distinguished the universities of Germany. The mechanical prescription of certain conventionally accepted studies for all pupils, without regard to their individual natures, should be replaced by courses adapted to the constitution and needs of each mind. The individuality of the human being must be recognized and respected in the grammar-school grades as well as in the kindergarten, high school, college and university. The teaching of all subjects by the one teacher in the primary grades should give place to leadership by specialists, as it has already in the secondary schools and colleges. The success of such departmental instruction in many schools justifies its universal adoption.
As in the Heimatkunde of the German schools, a knowledge of nature begins with the investigation of the geography and natural history of the home and its neighborhood. Every child, when led by curiosity and interest, is an investigator, and the discoveries made constitute the most important part of his education. Through open eyes the child should see the common things about him; and then through imagination he may visit distant lands. The domestic cat is quite as interesting and important as the Siberian tiger. At first, the child thinks he knows all about his common playmate, the cat; and yet, he is ignorant of the most significant fact: of the relationship of the cat to himself and other animals. By the simple process of feeling the top of his head, and looking at the back of his hand, he is brought to realize that he, as well as his cousin the cat, belongs to the fur-bearing animals. He learns that the cat walks about on two hands and two feet, and does not have four feet, as he has hitherto believed. In addition, the cat, like himself, has two eyes, one nose, one mouth, two ears, a heart, lungs, stomach, and, in all respects, is built very much like a human being. After fellowship in play, the child becomes conscious of the most important fact of all: that the cat is intelligent and, in addition to feelings and instinctive actions, has a sense of humor, malevolent and affectionate emotions, thinks and reasons, not indeed with a human mind but with a cat mind. After this, the boy is not so apt to throw a stone at the cat, for he may hit his cousin. He now begins to distinguish the
animals who are his friends, to be loved and protected, from those like the fly, who are his enemies, to be eliminated. While learning to love nature, the child should not be influenced by a sickly sentimentality, which prefers to allow flies to live rather than the little babies whom these dangerous animals infect with disease germs.In our nature-play, one type of animal, or plant, or a few closely related forms, is taken for each week. The course comprehends more than the interpretation of the structure and behavior of the isolated types. The relationship to one another, and to the child, of these living
things, is of the greatest consequence. The underlying philosophic basis of comparative anatomy and physiology is kept in mind in the selection of the series of types. There is a necessary dependence upon the season for the observation of many of the plants and animals examined; yet the course should never lose its general theme and become a desultory consideration of unrelated forms. Always freeing the descriptions from unnecessary technicalities and Latin names, the more notable facts are presented in such form, that all children may comprehend them. In the
beginning the familiar domestic animals are taken; in order that nature-play, started in the school-room, may be continued after school, about the home. A new interest is aroused in the cat, dog, chickens, horse and cow, in the fly and ant, as, led by the teacher's suggestions, the child investigates and is thrilled with new discoveries. Then the pupil is prepared to learn of the less accessible creatures of woodland and sea-side.
When the school program prevents excursions into the field, to parks and museums, the part of nature being investigated must be brought into the school-room. Animals, like the cat, rabbit, chicken, lizard, toad, insects and many others, may be kept in live-boxes, one of which should be provided for each school-room. The best of these live-boxes, or cages, are those planned and constructed by the children themselves. In such efforts, a cooperation with the manual-training department is desirable. By the insertion of a screened door and windows, any dry-goods box may be transformed into the temporary home for the visiting animal. Elaborate and expensive apparatus is not necessary. A glass preserving jar makes a good aquarium for fish or tadpoles. Just as in any other play, children may be relied upon to invent and build the simple things needed.
Never tell children that which they may find out for themselves. Let them count the fingers on the hand of the cat, and then the toes. Have the children watch the activities of the ant nest and then tell the story of their observations in the school-room and at home. In this way the child develops initiative, resourcefulness and the power of expression, while others share in his interesting knowledge and discoveries. The child himself and his development is the chief aim of nature-play.
At least ten minutes each day should be given to the type under consideration, with an appropriate subdivision of the subject matter for the week. There is no need of different subjects for the various grades. There is not a first-grade cat, second-grade cat, and so on; but only the one cat which should be described in such clear and simple language as to be readily understood by pupils of all ages. Each teacher may be trusted to make whatever translation, or omission, if any, may be necessary for her own pupils. Both teachers and pupils should freely ask questions of one another. If no one knows the answer, let all together become searchers for truth. The crime is not to be ignorant, but to pretend to knowledge when ignorant. With the same type in all the grades, children of different ages in the same family, or neighborhood, and their parents, as well, may all join together in nature-play and thus the larger part of the population will be devoted to learning all about the type in hand. Thus movements for civic betterment, such as the campaign against the fly, may be organized and promoted with power and efficiency.
As a record of individual observations, nature maps may be made of much value and at the same time give an inspiring opportunity for practise in drawing. On a large sheet of paper, the pupil lays out his home square, bounded by streets and subdivided into lots. Houses, stables, trees, bushes, cats, dogs, rabbits, horses, cows, chickens and other birds, lizards, toads, ants and other insects—indeed all the works of nature and of man that it is possible to include—are drawn in, or indicated by appropriate symbols. The sanitation map is a modification, showing
all unsanitary conditions such as piles of stable manure and other filth where flies breed, and stagnant pools harboring mosquito larvae. An accompanying explanation indicates the remedial work to be done in order to make the region a sanitary place of residence.
The nature map may be made the basis for a knowledge of economics, by showing: (1) the gardens and the value of their products; (2) the utility of common garden animals—like the toad, lizard, and spider—who eat destructive insects; (3) the proper development of the unused ground.
At the general annual exhibition of nature-play, prizes are offered for the best nature map, poster, drawing and photograph, and this recognition of their work encourages the pupils to sketch and photograph from nature.
The collecting instinct of children should be stimulated and directed toward the gathering of insects, rather than birds' eggs, of feathers, flowers, leaves, rocks, soils and other objects which do not rob nature of things beneficial to man. In this manner, each school-room may build up a useful museum of natural history. To promote the zeal of the young naturalists a nature club is organized in each school. A congress of these clubs is held every month, when the Director gives an illustrated lecture upon some topic of current interest. Agassiz's advice, to "study nature, not books," is important above all things, and yet it must be recognized that a knowledge of the records of the observations and investigations of others makes it possible to see and understand nature more clearly. It is useful to have a library in each room, with books and pictures concerning natural history.
The chief thing is to bring the child in contact with nature, and to give him the pleasure and stimulus of original discovery. It is desirable to have excursions into the yard, garden, field and forest whenever possible. While the class may not visit other countries and thus become familiar with foreign animals and plants in their native environment, yet good zoological parks and botanical gardens offer an excellent, although limited, substitute. After learning of the cat, at school and at home, the pupil may profitably see the large cats, like the lion and tiger, in the zoo, or in the wandering menageries. Almost every child has been to the circus and experienced one of the best possible nature excursions. The giraffe, camel and elephant have been so carefully observed that the pupils are able to sketch them. The child should learn why the giraffe has a long neck and spots on his brown fur, how the camel stores up food in his humps and water in the sacs around his first two stomachs, of the varied uses of the remarkable trunk of the elephant and of the animal's high intelligence.In order to thoroughly understand things that live to-day, the history of the transformation of their race upon the earth must be followed.
The child, learning that the horse walks on the tips of the middle fingers and the middle toes, becomes fascinated with the story of the evolution of this animal, through thousands of generations, from a small mammal about the size of a dog, which had five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot.
In our excursions to the asphalt fossil beds of Rancho La Brea, down in the pits the pupils see the embedded skulls and teeth of the imperial elephant and of mastodons, and the bones of saber-toothed tigers, lions, wolves, sloths, giant oxen, camels, and many birds. Here too, beside the trunk of a large cypress tree, a human skeleton has just been found, its bones intermingled with those of the giants of the past. It is not yet determined whether this rare discovery will antedate the earliest remains of man previously recorded. We may then more vividly realize how these strange creatures roamed over our mesa several hundred thousand years ago. These bones have been as perfectly preserved by the infiltrated tar, as if from animals only recently dead; and in the county museum we observe with delight the rare collection of their mounted skeletons. Frequently some bird, deceived by the brightly reflecting surface of a tar pool, alights and is drawn to death and burial in the sticky tar, thus repeating the story of the ages.
Another story from this wonderland of ancient days is added in that of the gigantic reptiles of the past, like the thunder lizard, twice as long as the school-room and so tall that its back-bone would go through the ceiling. The toothless hen, with arms as wings, adapted to flight, a rudimentary free thumb, and the other fingers fused into one piece, has descended from the first bird, with many teeth, three free clawed fingers and a long lizard-like tail having a row of feathers on either side. The ancestor of the first bird was a reptile with five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot.
Looking Down into a Rancho La Brea Asphalt Pit, to a Depth of Ten Feet. To the left; skull, femur and jaws of the imperial elephant. To the right; below, femur and teeth of mastodon and femur of giant ground sloth; above, tar seepage through side wall. Photographed by L. E. Wyman, through the courtesy of Frank S. Daggett, Director, Museum of History, Science and Art.
Fossils in Rancho La Brea Diggings, Showing Richness of Deposit. Copyright 1909 by J. Z. Gilbert and F. C. Winter and reproduced by their permission.
The history of the modification of some of the earlier water dwellers for life on dry land is illustrated in the development of the tadpole into the toad. The vegetarian tadpole, breathing air dissolved in the water, gradually absorbs its gills and propeller tail and sprouts arms and legs, in order that as a carnivorous toad it may hop about on land and breathe through its newly acquired lungs.
Many living things are useful to man and many are apparently useless, many are beneficial, and many harmful, and yet a knowledge of all nature is to be desired. Pasteur, in his earlier studies of wild yeasts, did not dream that ultimately his work would lead to saving the silk and wine industries of France and reducing the mortality from hydrophobia to less than one per cent.
The child learns that germs are not bugs, nor worms, nor little devils, but that they are very minute plants. When one says he does not believe in germs, he should also say that he does not believe in mushrooms; for both are related plants, the main difference being one of size. It is vital to know that while some germs produce disease, others are the best friends of man. The surface of the earth would be piled sky high with the dead bodies of plants and animals, if not for the putrefactive germs which produce all decay. The green plants, and in the end the animals, too, would starve, if not for certain soil bacteria which fix the nitrogen of the air in the form of the simple food necessary for plants. To germs must be given the credit for the delectable flavors of butter and cheese, and of assisting, if not being absolutely essential, in the processes of digestion.
To develop narrative skill we have introduced a game called caravan. Beginning in one of the rooms of the upper grade, the teacher selects three pupils especially interested in nature-play, each to describe some animal from the course. The name of the creature is not to be given by the narrator, but must be guessed by the others. Contrary to most guessing games, the object is to have given such a lucid description that the name of the animal will be guessed very soon. Then every one is invited to add anything not mentioned, or to correct any misstatements; so that the descriptions may become the general contribution of the room. By a majority vote the animal is selected to represent the room in the caravan, and then in a similar manner the pupil who can best describe the selected animal. Thus, the caravan starts on its way, in each room, adding a new animal after those already in the caravan have been described. The game proves an admirable review, in which each participating mind is keenly stimulated by the spirit of competitive play.
When man first became superior to the other animals he used weapons to kill them with. The vestige of that primitive struggle for existence is found now in hunting, sometimes necessary for the supply of food, but generally indulged in as a "sport." One summer day,
A Ground Owl that Mistook a Rancho La Brea Pool of Tar for Water. Vegetation on bank reflected in pool. Copyright 1909 by J. Z. Gilbert and F. C. Winter and reproduced by their permission.
beneath the pines at the Alpine Tavern on Mount Lowe, the gray squirrels came to eat nuts from my hand. They had learned to love and trust men. A few months later a hunter approached the boundary of the reservation. The squirrels saw man, their friend, and ran toward him,
happy in the expected reward, only to receive shot instead of nuts and to fall dead at the hunters feet. Another day, near the foot of the western cliffs of San Clemente Island, a great dead sea-lion was floating on a mass of kelp. The Japanese fisherman said that, the day before, sportsmen had shot the sea-lion for the "fun of it." The call of the wild is a tempting voice, leading men back to nature. May the day come soon when many will respond to that call, but with the substitution of camera for gun, yielding better sport and in the end saving our fast vanishing native animals. Just as condemnable as killing animals for sport is the fashion which demands the slaughter of birds for their feathers. The story is familiar of how the beautiful plumes are taken from nesting egrets, and thus the millinery hunters not only kill the
parents in large numbers, but also leave the young birds to starve in the nest. Women who do not desire to share in such wanton destruction of bird life will adorn their hats with feathers from the ostrich and other domesticated birds, or with artificial flowers and ribbons.The poetic insight is necessary for creative work in science as well as in literature. This gift enabled Darwin to construct a philosophy of nature, and Browning to portray the human heart, while in Goethe it was common source of inspiration for naturalist and poet. The imagination of the child should be cultivated, not suppressed. He should hear voices singing in the winds and hold communion with the dryad of the whispering woods and the Naiad of the babbling brook. The stories and songs of negroes and Indians, as gathered in books of folk-lore, constitute
a helpful adjunct to nature-play. These more primitive people are but grown up children, living in that closer touch with nature often forbidden the dwellers in brick apartments. The beginnings of romance are found in the thrilling adventures of "Brer Rabbit" and the contest of "B'Helephant and B' Wale." Such mythical tales as "Why the Bat is Blind" and "How the Animals Secured Fire" are among the first fanciful attempts to account for natural phenomena. Boys and girls are at home with the ant people, while these intelligent and industrious creatures transport and care for their young, hunt their enemies, cultivate their aphid herds, or fill their subterranean granaries with the seeds which the workers have harvested. We shall not deny mind in the ants simply because they do not perceive and think just as we do. It is quite as efficacious to touch and smell at the same time, through antennal end organs, as to have these functions separately performed through fingers
and nose; and it is also just as well to hear through the vibrations of the earth as through those of the air. Because ants remember odors, they are able to distinguish between friends and enemies, and the observant child may learn that the ant people get angry, at times are afraid, dislike some things and are fond of others, and show sadness and joy, hatred and love.
One of the principal elements in human happiness is the realization of beauty in nature, whether it be in the exquisite form and color of the petal of a rose, the glowing green of the beetle's armor, the flight of the swallow, the moonlight serenade of the mocking bird, the iridescent green and bronze ocelli of the peacock's tail-coverts, the mountains veiled in opalescent mists, the abysmal blue of the ocean, the glory of red and gold in the sunset, or the shimmer of the myriad stars. There is a beauty of structure and function, as in the system of lenses which focus upon the retina the countless rays of light from objects near and far, and thus make possible the mental perception of beauty in nature.
Consider the adaptation for dispersal shown in the dandelion, when the baby plant, in the seed, surrounded by food and borne aloft by a delicately tufted aeroplane, floats far away) from its mother. Somewhere—if it fall on fertile soil—when the weather is propitious, the baby dandelion will awaken, sprout as a seedling, mature into parenthood and in turn provide food and aeroplanes for its children.
Nature-play is the true basis for all knowledge. Through this dominant interest the child is led to know of the living things about him. Not merely are the facts of nature important, but much more valuable is the fascinating story of how and why these facts came to be. It is of much import to learn that the animals which bear scales and those covered with feathers, or fur, are all wearing similar clothing, but of the different fashions best suited to their needs. It is still more significant to realize that fundamentally the minds of all animals are as allied as are their digestive and respiratory systems. The great end of nature-play for the child is not simply to learn of the rest of nature, but better to know himself as a part of nature.