A few years ago I volunteered in the kindergarten class of the elementary school down the street in Grass Valley, California, where I lived at the time. This school had been singled out as one of the top thirteen K-8 schools in the state. Its teachers were superb, its facilities inviting, and its children regularly scored high in tests of achievement. The school sat in a bucolic cedar forest in this town in the foothills of the Sierras, with impossibly tall trees soaring toward the sky just outside the school playground.
February was coming. It seemed we’d just cleaned the Santas off the wall and taken down the chain of stars. Already we were cutting out red hearts for the next holiday. But there, sandwiched in the middle, was the day devoted to this small underground animal looking for his shadow. (And why are unidentified animals always “he”?)
The teacher, a warm, kind, and pregnant young woman, pulled out a Groundhog Day picture book. The children gathered in a circle for the story. “On this one day, he comes out of the ground where he’s lived all winter, and he looks around for his shadow.”
The children stared, transfixed. Most of them believed in Santa too. “And if he sees his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter!”
I groaned—inwardly of course. Here we were, teaching an amusing story to kids as if it were the gospel truth—as if that’s how nature really works.
I was sitting by the window, where I could look out on the playground. In a few minutes the kids would be ushered out to the hard asphalt surface for recess. They would kick balls, eat snacks, and chase each other—not necessarily in that order.
What they would never be able to do in this schoolyard is see a real groundhog—or touch any real element of nature. True, there was a tiny creek running along one edge of the blacktop surface, but the children would never step in it or run their fingers through the sandy grit at its edge or pick up small stones worn smooth by water. For this creek was walled off by hurricane fencing, and the gate to the small bridge to the other bank was chained shut and padlocked.
Maybe it was because of the threat of injury and lawsuit—we must protect kids from every danger, and most of them are found in nature!—or maybe it was to guard against creek water contaminated with the tailings from an old mine less than a mile away. But for whatever reason, in this classroom, in this school considered one of the top thirteen schools in the whole state, we were feeding children fairy tales about animals while preventing them from exploring nature on their own.
It’s time to get kids out in the woods again. Fairy tales about animals are fine for entertainment, but they won’t teach kids about the real world they’re living in—especially when the story is about an animal that doesn’t even live anywhere near. (The groundhog lives mostly in the eastern half of the United States, and the story came from Europe.)
What we need is education that teaches children about the world around them—the trees, the landscape, the people present and past who made their lives here. Hooray for place-based education and No Child Left Inside. Maybe the next generation will understand—and respect—its surroundings more than we have.