Check out this giant monarch butterfly that Tekoa caught with her hands! She is our resident fearless bug hunter and aspiring entomologist – both fascinated and mesmerized by all the tiny creatures of the earth. And her intense drive to explore is contagious! The whole crew is on a perpetual insect investigation. We have perfected our search: worms, spiders, and centipedes reside in the damp, dark, under-rock soil, and butterflies love the honeysuckle along the path. The vocabulary “holding bugs” or “looking bugs” prevents bugs from assuming an unnecessarily scary personality while emphasizing the fact that not all creatures like to be touched. Lengthy discussions of insect defense mechanisms are held around our meal table: we know that bees can sting, spiders can bite, mosquitoes…well, we are all too familiar with what mosquitoes can do! And we empathize with the plight of small creatures and their need for protection. After all, we are (mostly) small around here, so it is easy to see the perspective of an insect who would need poison, or a stinger, or speed, or bright warning colors to dissuade its predators (in fact, we wonder what it might be like to have some of our own defense mechanisms!). We talk life cycle (the morning after a big rainstorm is particularly fortuitous for a robin!), insect diets, and how to distinguish males and females – in species with gender distinctions. I could (and often do) run a curriculum entirely around insects. I rely on books from the library and field guides to build the cognitive knowledge about insects, and even more importantly, to build the meta-cognitive skills of knowing where to find information.
Today was particularly spectacular. Tekoa and Ezra spent the weekend with nets in the fields surrounding our house collecting butterflies. Last year, the crew observed the life cycle of a butterfly through a nifty mail-order operation, and I was left with this handy collapsible mesh butterfly house. In all, I suppose there are about 15 butterflies residing there now, a mix of painted lady and clouded sulphur butterflies. We got up close this morning and observed six legs and two antennae each (a tough challenge when your specimens keep moving!), and then we even saw the proboscis uncurl and stretch out straight! [Side note: nothing motivates me to learn a little butterfly anatomy than a passionate crew…those of you who live and work with young children, I’m sure, can relate!] What a morning! We set to work creating some butterflies (a little symmetric art anyone?) and then went for a nature walk to collect more flowers for our habitat.
While we were out, I watched Tekoa on the hunt. She spotted a monarch, and was instantly drawn to it because of its size. She tracked it along the path, patiently waiting while it sipped the nectar of flowers high above her head, and waiting for it to land close. Soon, it did, and she was ready with swift and gentle hands. “I got it!” she yelled, bringing all of her friends running quickly to see her catch. At first, I told her we would have to let it go – we were some distance away from the house, and we didn’t bring a jar to collect insects. I couldn’t see her carrying it all morning. “What if I run home really fast?” she offered – she hated to part with this prize! We decided to all turn around and head back – Tekoa and Cadence running ahead to unzip the habitat and put the monarch inside as quickly as they could.
I find I face a bit of an ethical dilemma in that meaningful interactions with nature – fostering wonder and curiosity, nurturing a spirit of learning – occasionally come at a high price for the wildlife. Children develop and foster a deep love and respect for the natural world through chances to interact in that world, yet children aren’t known for their delicate grasp. Despite some awareness of how handling butterflies could cause them to lose their flying ability, Tekoa can’t help but reach her hand into the mesh habitat to hold and move them from flower to flower. I observed each member of the crew today at a different time shaking the butterfly house or pushing in the side in order to make the winged specimens take flight. These butterflies have unknowingly (and against their choosing) become tokens for us to observe, prod, and experiment with, and while I am not on a quest to save each and every winged creature, is it wrong to allow children such potentially destructive interactions with wildlife?
I understand that developmentally, this age group does not have full command of perspective taking and inhibitory control which are necessary functions for compassionate interactions, but I wonder at what point I insist that butterflies are not for holding – touching their wings will impair their ability to fly? When do I insist that worms must return to the soil, to do the job they are supposed to do in our ecological web? When do I insist that flowers not be picked? What about blooms? Unopened blossoms? Is there a difference between daffodils and lilies? When do I require a compassionate and steady hand that looks out for the best in another creature – because frankly, I would be A-O-K with Tekoa collecting a whole swarm of mosquitoes, sealing them tight in a jar, and forgetting about them for a while – but butterflies, on the other hand, we’d hate for them to die as a byproduct of our curiosity! I am also aware that my group is predominantly girls – that the five oldest are female, and the youngest two (age two and 9 months) are boys. Do educators ask different questions of their boys and girls? Do we dismiss the sometimes destructive behaviors of boys as “boys being boys” while we demand a more tender response from girls?
In short, welcome to the vast gray world that is my nature based curriculum! We had an incredible day, filled with marvelous insight, joy, and wonder. And while I won’t vouch for the well-being of each butterfly that called our mesh habitat its home, we are learning to touch gently and look out for the needs of others – human and insect alike.
If you have insights to share, I’d love to hear them in the comments below. Hope you are enjoying the signs of spring as much as we are!