Raising a naturalist in your own backyard

I recently read an article that gave advice to parents on keeping their kids connected to nature in a (very) urban setting.  One of the recommendations was to bring "natural elements" into your living space like sticks and leaves.  We actually have a strict "no sticks in the house" policy with our son, but we do have a collection of rocks and sticks that he has deposited at our door upon returning from a neighborhood walk or backyard exploration. 

As a mom of a young boy growing up in a metropolitan area, I worry about establishing and maintaining my son's interest in the natural world - when nature seems more remote and more disturbed than when I was a kid.  After all, we named our son in honor of Aldo Leopold, but will our 'little Leopold' ever know or appreciate the natural world anywhere remotely in the way that his namesake did?  Fortunately, I'm finding out that kids' fascination with living creatures and their insatiable curiosity makes them natural, uh, naturalists - in any setting.

We live just outside the DC limits in a livable, walkable neighborhood - but to get to some pristine nature, you've got to get in your car - and go far.  When you look at life through the eyes of a child, however, it's amazing what you can find right outside your door. 

Looking for insects and worms in our backyard is one of my son's favorite activities.  At two and a half, he can identify a mourning dove and a red bellied woodpecker by sound.  He will point to a robin and tell you, "That's a robin.  They eat worms...and sometimes bugs." Because he has asked me about the sounds and diets of other birds, we keep the field guide to the birds of North America on his bookshelf right next to the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.  He and I like to try to imitate the sounds that different birds make based on the written descriptions.  After looking up the 'big woodpeckers,' he will ask to see the peewees.  ("They eat flies.")

Don't get me wrong.  I don't take credit for any of this. Although I am a biologist and have spent plenty of time in the field identifying different critters - including a stint doing bird surveys for the National Park Service - I've never had the patience, will or mental capacity to become a true birder.  But my capacity to mother is another thing - and if my son wants to know the name, song and diet of every bird he sees in our backyard, I can help him find the answers.

Like most things related to parenting, I probably don't need to worry as much as I do.  Somewhat appropriately, it has been our little Leopold who has reminded us that there is natural wonder to be found almost anywhere you look - which is why tonight, after his bath, we'll put on our pajamas and go chase some fireflies.

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Photo by respres' shared via Flickr