Thursday, December 22, 2011
Connecting with the Natural World
The winter solstice has just been upon us. We are in the so-called dead of winter. Days are short and nights are long. In many areas of the world it's cold outside, and while kids are out of school for winter vacation, are they stepping away from the computer and the television? I wonder. I hope so.
I'm old enough to remember a childhood when no matter how cold or how dark, we'd take one more run on the sled or the skis by the moonlight or the lamplight until the sound of our mothers calling us to come home could no longer be ignored. There is something so important about connecting with the natural world that no matter how many S.T.E.M. professionals students meet online, those connections aren't enough to inspire a child, to provide them with authentic experiences of life on this planet.
I hope school children will spend these vacation days mucking in the snow, digging in the dirt, building forts in trees. I hope they will feel icy wind on their cheeks and the welcome warmth of winter's sun on a frigid afternoon when they're simply having too much fun to notice that their toes are freezing inside their boots.
Not that long ago we learned about the sun and the moon and the earth because it was our immediate environment. We lived on the earth, rather than watching it on a television screen. I recently watched an amazing documentary about Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. In 2900 BC settlers in the canyon were what we might call astronomers and archaeologists. They built great temples in alignment with the sun without the help of computers or sophisticated measuring tools. They lived their lives in alignment with celestial events, including the Winter Solstice.
While children at all grade levels should be aware of career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, they should also be able to answer the question: "What is my relationship to the sun?" They should be able to answer the question from personal experiences of exploring their world away from the computer.
Back in the classroom, at the end of winter break, the magic and wonder of digital technologies will provide enrichment opportunities like The Exploratorium, a dynamic place for kids to explore the ocean floor and outer space and all the in-between. Webcasts hosted by scientists provide first-hand experiences in places like Chaco Canyon. Earlier this evening I watched a webcast of the Winter Solstice that had originally been streamed live from one of the ancient canyon temples, an amazing indoor exploration of the outdoor world.
If you have young children at home, take them for a walk in the dark and talk to them about the waxing moon and about the solstice. If they get a chance later on to interact with an astronomer online, they will have first-hand knowledge and their excitement will be all the greater.