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I remember a debate I engaged in when I first started teaching environmental education about using imagination in children's nature programs. Some say that nature education should show and share facts, while others argue that imagination is a natural state of children that should be utilized to engage them in exploration and learning. Last summer I enrolled my son in a camp at the local nature center about gnomes. Two days, six hours each day, he learned all the facts about imaginary little people. The gnomes left him a note after their first day in camp, which described their lifestyle on the ranch. There are forest gnomes, garden gnomes and wetland gnomes, each living in unique habitats, encountering various predators and demanding different food sources. After getting that note, he was hooked. He spent the next 11 hours (over two consecutive days) searching for mushrooms, insects, berries and signs of potential danger that could harm his new little friends. He packed water shoes to search out the wetlands, boots to hike through the forest and Crocs to dig around in the gardens. He arrived home each night exhausted, but with stories to tell….and he rarely comes home with detailed stories of the day. These days he came home telling all about the specifics of his gnomes' lives.
My son is only five. He believes in Santa and his life is better for it. From my adult point of view, Santa comes with strings attached: giving selflessly, caring for others, paying attention to being a “good” boy, and all the other good that might come from Santa in the long run. Same with the gnomes, I imagine. He won't be heart-broken when he realizes that gnomes are fictitious (if, in fact they are). But he will certainly remember the tromps in the woods, the head-sized mushroom that could sustain a gnome community for weeks, the trap doors he built to prevent weasels from getting into the gnome's garden. Perhaps, if he remains interested in biology and ecology, he might make the connection to food chains, habitats, and the like. Maybe, by a longshot, he might even think something of conservation to protect the animals who share the land with him.
I, too, have found that the most engaging activities for 5-10 year olds involve play and pretend. Nothing like setting up a good game of camouflage in which kids pretend to be mice and owls, a good game of predator/prey where mice are gathering and storing nuts while hawks lurk in the shadows, a game of fox and goose where the foxes quietly and cautiously approach the blind-folded goose who tries helplessly, to protect her young. As for sharing facts, that is important too, but I think that I've forgotten most of the facts that I learned since approaching adulthood, let alone the facts I learned when I was a child. Not to mention, I remember a number of occasions, especially in my first years teaching environmental education, where some of the facts that I shared, were equally as fictitious as the gnomes in the forest. Before engaging a child to remember the facts, remember to engage them to have an experience that they will never forget.