“I try to provide experiences that will sow the seeds of change.
Then, sooner or later, children will incorporate those experiences
into their thinking. I’ve learned it takes concrete experience, time,
and faith in their intelligence”
Eric Hoffman (quoted in In Our Own Way: How Anti-Bias Work Shapes our Lives, p. 89)
The crew and I were walking to HyVee to return a library book at their outdoor book drop. It was a lovely afternoon – the sun shining, the breeze blowing, the scent of spring in the air when all of the sudden…
Tekoa: “WAIT! I think I see a bug!” We stopped, and leaned down over the edge of the sidewalk curb by where the parking lot and the side walk drop off meet and sure enough, there was a beetle. But not just any ordinary beetle, a beetle of massive proportion.
Allow me to pause for a moment in the retelling of our story to give you a bit of the background about the experience. I am not – by nature – a bug lover. I would much rather send such small living things with their long spindly legs and their unpredictable movements back into the wild or deep into the bottom of my trashcan because when I am truthful with myself, I am a little fearful of the insect world. What if it bites? What if it crawls on me (elch!)? What if it jumps? When I think about it, I feel a little silly as an adult surrendering my emotional control to an insect, but it is what it is. In reality, fear of insects is not a disposition I esteem in myself. I am much too aware of the interconnectedness of all living creatures to desire the demise of another living thing. My very well-being is held by the intricate working of all of life together – plants, animals, insects, humans – and to disturb the sensitive ecological balance is to send far reaching ripples that travel far beyond the individual squish. Now, I don’t believe that if I squish a spider, all of earth will come crashing down on my head, but I do believe that nurturing a disposition of treading lightly on our natural surroundings is key to the success of humanity. Plus, awareness of the role played by each living member of our ecosystem fosters gratitude and compassion. This awareness means I can’t blindly enact my power and will over another creature just because of size (I’m bigger than you!), or taste (I don’t like you – you’re wiggly, squishy, and you might bite), or arrogance (I’m more important than you), or disrespect for ecological importance (It’s just a bug!). Furthermore, I think the dispositions we nurture as we interact with nature are the same dispositions that are key to interacting respectfully with our differently looking or behaving human friends!
Anti-bias education (ABE) is a phrase used in early childhood settings to describe a comprehensive way of being with children in the early years that fosters respect and dignity for all of humanity regardless of difference or similarity. I was privileged to attend a conference in Des Moines in the fall of 2010 keynoted by Louise Derman-Sparks who is one of the foremost contributors in the field of ABE for young children. At that conference, hundreds of educators gathered to talk deeply about issues of bias and inequity in our world, and I left empowered to create a program that would be as bias-free as possible. Louise Derman-Sparks has described four major goals of ABE in early childhood education in raising children who can contribute positively in an increasingly diverse world. Goal 2 reads, “Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences, and deep, caring human connections.” (Anti-Bias Education for our Children and Ourselves, p. 4) In studying the theories of ABE and incorporating them into my program, I am convinced that fears of difference must be actively countered in order to raise children who can advocate for equality and interact respectfully with others. If I condone or model a fear of the natural world, I am supporting a way of being that allows for fear of differences based on all kinds of human characteristics: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, age, family structure, or class. My responsibility as an early childhood educator to the children in my care compels me to foster an openness in my own experience towards the natural world, one that allows each child to grow those critical qualities of compassion and empathy that will remain with them for life!
Back to the bug. (Pictures to follow below…if you are squeamish about insects, consider yourself warned!)
When we all bent over the curb there was, indeed, a very large (!) dead beetle. Tekoa’s first question is always, “Is it a holding bug?” After the tried and true “poke it gently with a stick to see if it is really dead” scientific method of determining the health of the beetle, we agreed that it would be safe to hold. Each child took turns passing the beetle from one hand to the next, marveling with wonder and curiosity at the size, the smoothness, and the shape of the insect. We wondered about the type of beetle, its habitat, diet, gender, and travel speed.
Me: “I wonder how we could find out what type of beetle this is?”
Tekoa: “Let’s go ask Christine!” [a friend and neighbor who spends some time with our crew every week and who is very knowledgeable about the natural world.]
On our way home, we stopped at Christine’s house and knocked. The whole crew breathlessly retold the story to Christine, who – after clarifying the story and viewing the beetle – told us she did not know about that particular variety. When we got home that evening, I had a chance to do a little investigating online, and found the Iowa State University Department of Entomology. Because of the crew’s fascination with insects, they are well versed in what an entomologist is and what they study. So the next day, I proposed an idea.
Me: “You’ll never believe it. I found a whole group of entomologists who work here in Iowa. I think that if we write them a letter and send pictures of the beetle, that they might be able to tell us what kind of a beetle it is and give us some information about it.” I received overwhelming affirmation. They dictated quick letters, and we uploaded digital pictures to our nearby photo processing store, and set off for a walk. The entire package was assembled, mailed, and we were back in time for lunch. I am curious to know how the package is received by the Department of Entomology. I have included images of the children’s letters below so you can see what kinds of things they were interested in sharing with the scientists.
More to come when we hear back from the ISU entomologists (and, ISU entomologists, if you are reading this…thank you!). In the meantime, what practices do you have to foster concern for the natural world in the little ones around you? Or do you have a story about how you came to feel a connection, concern, or interest in the world around you? Do you want to make a guess about the species of beetle we found? Share your thoughts in the comments below!