The class of middle-schoolers was being taught by one of my own former students, Andy Johnson. Andy engaged them and answered each individual question and spoke in measured tones that made every student feel appreciated. He was good with them and the class he taught, better for them.
We were in an impromptu outdoor classroom, spread across a prairie knob on my place that just happens to be covered with fossils. Students prospected in stooped posture gleaning through the grasses for the exposed soil that sometimes contained treasure. Each eventually discovering a token to take home and share with family of a time long ago when the land, here on the edge of the Black Hills, was covered with water.
I had started the class with a safety briefing. This is poison ivy, it can give you itchy blisters. There are ticks. Their bite can give you Lyme disease. Yucca have spikes that will make you bleed, and I have seen rattle snakes. At first, the city kids were more interested in being assured that they wouldn’t be too far from their water bottles and air conditioning. But after the first discoveries, they were all engaged.
When they heard noise coming from the rattle snake den I didn’t know about, they were all hooked.
My family has always taken delight in introducing young people to the outdoors. Starting with my father and I in Boy Scouts. A picture of us together in our uniforms hangs above my desk. For many years we sponsored the Hatchery Helpers program, and worked with the student chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. My sons have always offered impromptu fly-fishing lessons to any kid who needed a pole. Finally, I teach a class at the High School in Outdoor Adventure Literature and so when Andy mentioned that he was teaching a summer enrichment course for kids I invited them out.
We looked at animal tracks, millions of years old, fossilized turtle eggs and shells, picked ancient sea shells from among the rocks and generally lost all track of time and place. We climbed through the pines and sandstone, sniffed the sage, and asked each other a hundred questions in the most invigorating classroom any child has ever enjoyed. It was only when we were coming down from one of the ridge tops were native people had sat and made tools that the buzzing of the den ended our adventure. We guided everyone safely away from the den and back to the house and their waiting vans.
Safety lessons with teeth, plants that draw blood, hidden snake dens, and heading home with a fist-full of fossils make summer learning a treasured opportunity. In a world driven by connectivity with all things internet, this was real in a fashion that a tiny phone screen can never achieve.
A few weeks later I accompanied a father-son hike into the Black Hills with my church. My own sons were working and these boys were much younger, many not even yet in school. Together we looked down into a pool of tadpoles. It was a blessing to share with young eyes that had never seen the spectacle, to explain that we were looking at God’s own Transformers. Tails that would disappear, legs that would erupt, gills that would be absorbed. They didn’t have any corporate sponsors, flashy paint jobs, or actor voice-overs, but a little boy could hold one of these transformers in the palm of his hand.
We walked for three miles, only stopping occasionally to join in prayer and it occurred to me that while I have always done so on my own, praying in the forest, in the outdoors, is perhaps the greatest lesson missing from what we teach kids. While their lives are choked with the supernatural created in children’s literature, all that is written was first inspired out here. That to truly engage children in hunting or fishing, birdwatching or fossil collecting, to have them hold in hand the works of man that are thousands of years old side- by-side with works of nature that are millions, should be a spiritual endeavor as well as educational.
Too often older children ask what something is worth before they can be taught that little of great value is monetary. To teach in a forest filled with daisies, surrounded by the wondering eyes of young children is perhaps my favorite classroom of all.
Hey kids. Let’s go find an adventure.