Nurturing a Sense of Wonder

Backyard Exploringby Peter Macinnis The young people who will be the next generation's decision makers need to have come up against questions with no pre-ordained answer. And what safer place is there to do that than in your own back yard?



I KEEP six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.


Rudyard Kipling wrote this to go with one of my favourite Just So Stories, 'How the Elephant Got its Trunk'. That tale has coloured my whole life.


It even colours my writing, because I like telling "once upon a when" stories, tales that make youngsters ask "what happened next?" or "what would have happened if…?"


But the best question to feed young minds is "what else is out there?" That sort of question teaches kids to go, to find out, to think independently. The world needs independent thinkers.


Australian Backyard Naturalist followed on from an earlier book about explorers, where I kept encouraging readers to search the undergrowth. Luckily my publishers are playful humans, who knew that joyful learning is the best sort, so they let me have my head. Then they asked for more.


Bad education means learning long lists for the sake of knowing long lists. Good education means feeding inquisitiveness. Kipling knew that. I grew up as an Elephant's Child, full of insatiable curiosity*, because Kipling said it was OK to be curious. He said it was OK to ask questions, to look, to poke, to fiddle.


And that's why I like to tell another generation:

It's OK to ask your own questions, and then look for the answers yourself.


Young minds need to investigate unpredictable stuff: not video clips, not computer programs, not even books. The young people who will be the next generation's decision makers need to have come up against questions with no pre-ordained answer. And what safer place is there to do that than in your own back yard?


The questions may be simple, like "what's under this leaf?". On a tree, there may be a tiny spider on the underside. Or a caterpillar, a beetle, or nothing. On the ground, all sorts of things hide under a leaf, many of them so small you need a hand lens to see them. The only way to know what's there is to look.


To get your child or grand-child started on asking interesting questions and seeking interesting answers, try these two simple tricks:


1. The upside down umbrella.


Go outside with an umbrella on a dry day, open it, turn it upside down, hold it under a bush and give a branch a really good shake. Then look at what has fallen into the umbrella. If you know about pooters, make one and use it to catch some of your animals. (If you don't, enter two words, Macinnis pooter, into a search engine or Youtube, and you will see how. Failing that, read the book.)


2. A pit trap for wee beasties.


Some of the most interesting backyard wildlife is the tiny shy stuff that only comes out after dark, or scuttles into cover at the first sign of a shadow.


Place a board on four small pebbles, leaving just enough room for small things to squeeze in. When you lift the board, they all rush off, looking for cover, so you have to look quickly. One important safety hint: spiders and centipedes may hide under the board, so drill a hole in the board and attach a string so you can lift and look safely!


You can make them easier to see with a jam jar and a trowel. The idea is to put the jar in the ground, so that the top is just below the soil. Then put down four pebbles around the jar and lay the board on them. Look at them in the jar, then let them go.


They say that if you give somebody a fish, you feed them for a day, but if you teach them to fish, you feed them for life. That's me, and if I end up colouring a few lives, that's good! For even more colour, discover my blog, Old Writer on the Block.


* Kipling called it satiable curtiosity, and if you may know that. If you don't, and I typed it correctly, you'd think I couldn't type!


About the Author:

Peter Macinnis is an award-winning Sydney-based science and history writer.  He has written many books including 'Australian Backyard Explorer', for which he won the Children's Book Council of Australia's Eve Pownall Award in 2010.




Australian Backyard NaturalistBook: Australian Backyard Naturalist by Peter Macinnis.

Be a naturalist - in your own backyard!


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