While vacationing near Assateague Island this summer, I picked up a small book by Rachel Carson entitled The Sense of Wonder. Carson’s descriptive prose recounts delightful explorations with her young nephew Roger near her home in Maine.
Experiencing nature with a child, she contends, sharpens the senses, stirs long-forgotten memories, and awakens child-like wonder in each of us. It is good for the child, and it is good for us.
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder,” Carson writes, “he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Between the lines of Carson’s narrative is the implication that the child also needs time to wonder. Today the time children spend outdoors is often scheduled, organized, and highly directed. The daily pace of life can be frenetic. Watching a spider construct its silvery web or following a full moon as it rises from the horizon calls for a slower pace.
Today’s technology is a distraction that Carson could not have imagined. While we are fortunate to have information at our fingertips to help us identify creatures or name constellations, “plugging in” can stifle the senses. Carson recalls stargazing on a moonless night with Roger: “An experience like that, when one’s thoughts can be released to roam the lonely spaces of the universe, can be shared with a child even if you don’t know the name of a single star. You can still drink in the beauty, and think and wonder at the meaning of what you see.”
Carson realized that parents can feel inadequate when confronted with the inquisitive mind of a child in a world they are not equipped to explain. Don’t worry, she assures us, the child’s sensory impressions and emotions are the fertile soil in which knowledge will grow. Childhood is the time to prepare the soil.
So, take the time to experience nature with your child – the earthy smell of a summer rain, the staccato hum of katydids at nightfall, a velvety carpet of moss under bare toes. As Carson reminds us, bedtimes can be postponed, clothing may get wet, and mud will graze the carpet, but the rewards will be everlasting.
Here are some of my favorite places to explore nature with children in northern Virginia. Resist the urge to make it an educational experience. Just make it an experience.
Huntley Meadows Park, Alexandria
One of the best places in northern Virginia to explore wetland wildlife and vegetation. Or take a walk in the woods or wander in the meadow.
Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, Centreville
Easy hiking on shady trails. Watch for turtles, fish, and birds at the pond. Spot butterflies in the meadow.
Prince William Forest Park, Triangle
Beavers! Find evidence of these furry engineers along the streamside hiking trails. All that glitters in Quantico Creek is….pyrite!
Riverbend Park, Great Falls
Wander along the banks of the Potomac River or explore the forest trails. Find and taste paw-paws in late summer if you’re lucky.
Mason Neck State Park, Lorton
Spy eagles, osprey, herons, and waterfowl in wetlands along the tidal Potomac.
Sky Meadows State Park, Delaplane
Travel a little west of the metro area to find dark skies for stargazing during special astronomy programs.
And here's a bonus one that does not require driving...
Your own backyard.
You might be surprised at what you find when you take the time to look!
Sharon Dykhoff is Dominion’s Upper School Science Teacher.
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