What are we teaching kids on Groundhog Day?

My relationship with Groundhog Day is complicated. On the one hand, I like this small piece of attention to the natural world. At what other time does anyone think about the adventures of groundhogs or any other rodent-sized earth dwellers? February 2 is one of only two holidays devoted to the natural world (the other is the much less popular Arbor Day). And of course I love Groundhog Day, the movie, with its whimsical look at a serious topic—the years of work it can take to get a life right. (Just how long was Bill Murray forced to wake up to “I Got You, Babe”? By this hilarious count, 33 years and 358 days.)

No, it’s not a groundhog, it’s a prairie dog! Because I live on grasslands not woodlands, and we have no woodchucks (groundhogs) here. Image courtesy Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks.

But on the other hand, I have some serious issues with Groundhog Day. It’s a little mashup holiday that rolls together snippets from different times and places, a day that shows why, if you care about nature, mashup holidays are probably a bad idea. This one gets the animals wrong, it gets the climate wrong, and it may just be getting children wrong as well.

Take my experience with kindergartners. There I was in 2005 in Grass Valley, California, living in the beautiful cedar and pine forest of the Sierra foothills. At the bottom of my street sat a wonderful public elementary school. The previous year this school had won the California Distinguished School Award for its academic excellence. Only about 20 schools out of 500 get this honor.

Needing some quality kid time that fall, I decided to volunteer one afternoon a week at the school. I was placed in a kindergarten class helping a wonderful, kind young teacher gather the small fry from playtime into storytime, then on to recess and to snack. I joined in with finger paints and Legos; I gave consolation and received kisses (the kisses finally ending my career as a volunteer when I got a recurring stomach flu so violent I nearly landed in the hospital).

Like any kindergarten, the curriculum of this one followed a holiday schedule: first Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then Groundhog Day. And during storytime on February 2 is when it hit me: something’s not quite right here!

There they were, eighteen small but hugely sincere faces gathered in a circle around Miss K, staring up at her in wide-eyed wonder while she read to them about the groundhog who peeks out of his burrow on February 2 looking for his shadow.

I looked around at the classroom. On the walls were the usual construction paper cutouts—red hearts for Valentine’s Day—and children’s drawings. Nothing about the natural world was spotlighted in the classroom. It wasn’t the wonderful young teacher’s fault. She was only following the guidelines she’d been given about what kindergartners are supposed to learn.

I looked out the windows to the playground ringed with hurricane fencing. I knew that just outside the fence flowed a creek covered by a small bridge. But the gate to the bridge was padlocked, and the tall fence carefully shut off all access to the creek. It had to be this way for health reasons. The creek flowed down from the nearby Empire Mine State Park, a peaceful, pine-wooded haven of hiking trails—and leftover mine tailings. Creekwater throughout the area was contaminated with toxic minerals leaching out from mines dug a hundred years before.

The children wouldn’t be able to explore in the creek or touch the rough bark of incense cedars. They wouldn’t be taught to watch closely while insects burrowed through duff in the ground next to their school. Their feet wouldn’t even touch grass or soil, not even during recess, for the huge flat playground was completely paved with asphalt. The story about the groundhog, in other words, was just about the only information about the natural world that these children were going to get during school hours.

And it wasn’t even information. It was a legend from another time and place—medieval northern Europe—where the climate was colder and where some animals, none of them found in these children’s lives, actually slept through the winter. And it was a legend that grew a North American layer about groundhogs over its original layer of bears or serpents or badgers, who apparently were the first heroes of the story.

But as I looked around that circle of small faces, I saw that none of them knew this was a legend. None of them could tell that this was a story to be enjoyed for the story’s sake rather than a story that gives immediate knowledge of the natural world. At five or six they don’t yet know the difference. So eighteen children sat rapt before Miss K; eighteen pairs of wide-open eyes eagerly awaited the next page.

I couldn’t stop the thought: And this is what award-winning education looks like. It was education that had gotten the climate wrong, the animals wrong, and the children wrong as well. By feeding the students a pablum of anachronisms about the natural world instead of teaching them to sink their hands in mud, to feast their eyes on the colors of tree foliage, to recognize poison oak and name the first wildflower in spring, this brand of education disrespected the students. It inculcated a story from another time and place instead of encouraging the students to observe grasses or flowers or woodland using their own eyes, their fingers and toes, their ears, their skin. It treated the children as if they didn’t have the capacity to appreciate or synthesize the results of their own observations.

Now there is a place for legends. I might argue there is even a place for legends in public school. But when the only attention to the natural world comes through legends—when the only stories told about animals are about animals the children will never see, doing things those animals don’t normally do—something is seriously wrong with the curriculum.

That moment more than any other turned me into an advocate for place-based education. Only an education that teaches children how the natural world in their own area really works can prepare people for addressing the biggest crisis we now face: that we in the industrial world are using up the Earth’s gifts faster than they can be replenished. Only an education built on the evidence children gather from their own experiences of water and dirt and birds and leaves and mud can prepare them to make good decisions, as adults, about the future of this world. Only by building their own relationships with the creatures and soil around them will they begin to appreciate how strong yet delicate, how intricate yet supportive this web of life on Earth is, and how vital their own actions are in making sure it continues for generations to come.

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7 Responses to What are we teaching kids on Groundhog Day?

  1. Priscilla,

    Yikes! I have never thought about this. I’ve never had children, so I admit I’m a bit out of touch. But I was a child . . . or at least I think I was. It was a long time ago. I recall doing an ecological survey in my backyard while in elementary school. I had to string off an area (a very small one) and record the life I found there. Don’t kids do this sort of thing any longer?

    The older I become (and I will be 63 in about six weeks), the more I understand that much of what passes for everyday living is superficial, but many of the things that matter are those things related to the natural world: the birds at my feeder, the passing of the seasons, the differnces in growth patterns between one plant and another, the wildlife that persists even in urban areas, the rock formations that stand like sentinels, and the trees everywhere that have the wisdom of grandfathers and grandmothers. This may be eyerolling waxing poetic stuff to some, but I’m convinced that what draws us closer to both the divine and the divine in the form of humans includes–in a big way–the natural world. And what is more profound or important than that?

    Thank you for your ongoing reminders of this.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:February 4, 2012 at 11:58 am

      Melanie, your school was more progressive than mine. In my elementary school we were not taught to closely observe nature, either through ecological surveys or through outdoors drawing or writing classes. Today, thank goodness, more and more schools are encouraging children to closely observe and learn from nature. And of course, when you say that “what draws us closer to both the divine and the divine in the form of humans” includes nature, I’m with you all the way!

  2. Amen, Priscilla! You’re triggering memories of exploring Witmer Woods, boating on the Elkhart River, grubbing in the dirt with my gardening mother and dipping into the creek behind my house for a science fair project testing for e. coli. And of schooltime stories of that groundhog….never knew it started as a legend.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:February 4, 2012 at 12:08 pm

      Sally, thanks for dropping by! Exploring in the woods is a sound education, and I very much appreciate the work of people like Richard Louv, who encourages nature immersion and who coined the term nature-deficit disorder.

      Regarding the groundhog, I called the story a legend, but it really comes from the ancient pagan or Celtic holiday of Imbolc, for February 2 lies halfway in the solar year between the solstice and the equinox, and in the northern lands Imbolc was celebrated by looking toward spring. I suspect the groundhog story is really an instance of divination or augury, using animals as omens either to understand the larger patterns of nature or to foretell the future. But while I have a great deal of respect for divination, when it is approached with the right intentions, I notice that Groundhog Day in the modern world pretty much reinforces the modern prejudice against other-than-scientific ways of knowing nature. But there wasn’t room to go into all this in the blog post!

  3. You’ve made a wonderful point here, and I wish your column could get wider attention–that is, to those who determine the curricula for schools. I’ve never understood the point of Groundhog Day, but your explanation of it as coming from northern Europe and relating to bears makes so much sense.
    By the way, my nephew goes to Bear Creek elementary school in Boulder and last year his class studied the Boulder watershed, so some schools are making the nature connection for kids.
    A wonderful column. Thank you.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:February 4, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      Kathy, I’m so glad to hear about schools that are helping kids connect with nature! Many curriculum-reform groups and programs are calling for nature immersion. Here is a listing of many such resources on the web.

  4. Diana says:March 11, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    I’m lucky to live in a community that Gets It. We’re remnants of a rural logging community, hippie back-to-the-landers, escapees from the burbs, and a (very) few wealthy mansion-builders. One of my best friend’s daughter, hubbie, and infant are moving back home with her, not only because it makes financial sense, but mostly so that their daughter can get in the garden and get grubby. The soil in the park next to them is covered with sewage sludge, the local schools teach a standard curiculum….Our tiny school district, voted number 1 or 2 for years now in national school surveys, teaches the best of both worlds, and has a charter school focussing on local education. It can be done, on a dang small budget, if there is enough collective will.