homeschool,  parenting

Knowing Nature by Name: Why I Teach my Children to Identify all Parts of Creation

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“What’s that called?” It’s one of my daughter’s favorite questions. We are looking through a favorite nature book, and my her chubby finger is pointed at a wide-eyed critter that I am not familiar with. “I’m not sure,” I say, tempted to leave it at that. But I know better. “Let me find out,” I add.

I reference the back of the book. “It’s a slow loris,” I pronounce clearly. “Slow loris,” my two-year-old echoes quietly, “right.” She smiles, and we continue to look at creatures, both familiar and exotic, naming them together: zebra, monarch, macaw, scuttle fish, brown bear, walrus, armadillo, narwal.

Both my children love knowing nature by name. My two year old can correctly identify a cardinal, robin, and mourning dove. My four year old can point out a red-spotted purple butterfly and a waxing crescent moon. They both know that the tree that towers in our back yard is an oak, and when we visit the beach, they can tell the difference between a parade of pelicans and a flock of seagulls.

This didn’t happen accidentally. It has taken a lot of learning and intentionality on my end to teach them to correctly identify different parts of nature. (Two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to the names of the birds that frequented our bird-feeder or the phases of the moon myself!) But I believe it is one of the greatest practices we’ve established, because by knowing nature by name and identifying nature together, we’ve all fostered a deep love for it.

Let me explain.

Names Matter

He counts the stars and calls them all by name.

Psalm 147:4, NLT

As a graduate student at a secular school, I was amazed when my atheistic professor referenced Genesis during her argument on the power of words: “According to Hebrew tradition, God spoke the world into being,” she stated. “He created the universe by calling things by name.”

Even now, as I read renditions of the Creation account with my children, I am reminded of this oft-neglected wonder. In Sally Lloyd Jones’ Jesus Storybook Bible, God creates by saying, “Hello light!”, “Hello sea!”, “Hello stars!” His spoken word creates something out of nothing.

Then, God gives Adam the task of naming the creatures, carrying on the tradition. We, as humans, reflect God’s image by naming things. With great care, we name our children, and those children name their beloved toys and dolls. To name things is to be human.

When something is discovered for the first time, the immediate response is to give it a name. Constellations, nations, plants, animals, books, songs, vehicles, recipes, hurricanes, diseases, theories, and feelings have names. Literally everything has a name. And with good reason.

Until something has a name, it remains elusive, confusing, unknown. When we know something’s name, we begin the path to understanding it.

Knowing Something’s Name Matters

Consider this situation: you live in a neighborhood but know none of your neighbors by name. You can wave to each other politely and acknowledge each other’s existence, but you won’t have much of a relationship. If you care to get to know your neighbors, the first thing you have to do is extend yourself, to care to learn a bit about them.

So it is with the natural world. We can acknowledge the trees, plants, critters, climate, and solar system around us, but we can’t learn to care for them if we don’t first learn a bit about them. At the very least, we need to learn to identify them correctly: we ought to call each tree, flower, animal, bird, fish, bug, weather element, celestial being by name.

Children are Geared for Knowing Nature by Name

Some adults are amazed by my kids’ ability to identify different parts of nature. And while I do think they are bright, I don’t see them as particularly extraordinary. Most children have an affinity for naming the things they care about. Some children can tell you the make and model of every car they pass on the road. Others can tell you the name of every player on their favorite sports team, or the name of every character on their favorite TV show. Kids’ minds are geared for naming in their attempt to make sense of the world.

In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv references a British study in which “average eight year olds were better able to identify characters from…Pokémon than native species where they lived: Pikachu, Metapod, and Wigglytuff were names more familiar to them than otter, beetle, and oak tree.”

Dr. Balmford, one of the zoologists who conducted the British study, stated: “Our findings carry two messages. First, young children clearly have tremendous capacity for learning about creatures, whether natural or man-made, being able at age eight to identify nearly 80 per cent of a sample drawn from 150 synthetic ‘species’. Second, it appears that conservationists are doing less well than the creators of Pokémon at inspiring interest in their subjects.”

The issue isn’t that kids can’t store the names of different natural species, because they can. The issue is that we are not inspiring or equipping them to do so.

Why I Teach My Children to Identify all Parts of Creation

When I read Louv’s book last year, I felt deeply convicted. I wanted my children to know about the natural world they lived in and I preferred that the filing cabinets of their minds to be filled with the names of real things, not made up characters. I made an effort to begin learning about the species around us in attempt to teach my children to know them, too. And as we began to identify creation together, I found that they retained the information with amazing ease.

Along with the retention of names, I began to notice how my kids began to think more deeply about the nature they observed. I shouldn’t have been surprised; during my career as a teacher, we often referenced Bloom’s taxonomy to teach effectively. The first step for learning is remembering basic information. Once children can remember, they begin to apply higher level thinking skills by understanding, then applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. I was watching my children learn about creation on their own; they just needed me to give them the language they needed to process it.

I teach my children to identify nature because I want them to engage with it in a meaningful way. I want them to care for it. I believe it is part of our God-given nature, as humans, to care for creation, and the first step for caring for creation is knowing it by name.

I’ve realized, too, that I have power to either nurture or diminish my children’s instinctual love for nature based off of how I interacted with them and the natural world myself. This humbling reality has motivated me to keep doing my part.

A simple nature identification activity: take a walk around your neighborhood with your children. Collect leaves and seeds from nearby trees. Make and label a collage.
We, as Parents, are Responsible for Fostering a Love for Nature in our Children

We, as parents, all shoulder the responsibility of helping our children fall in love with the natural world.

It’s not fair to add “foster love for nature” to the endless responsibilities of teachers. Besides, which is a more effective method for helping a child love a tree: a worksheet labeling the parts of a willow or allowing a child to clamber up a willow’s slender trunk and sit among the dancing branches?

Kids won’t learn to love nature at school; it will happen at home.

The good news is that children are naturally drawn to nature. The problem is, many children have had that natural interest trained out of them. Today’s kids spend more time indoors and on screens than any other generation to date. Is it any surprise, then, that they are more familiar with Squirtle than the turtle that inspired him?

If we want our children to love nature, we need to be the ones to make it happen. It means we need to give them ample time and space to explore nature. It also means we will need to come along side them to be their nature mentor. We will, of course, need to foster our own love of nature.

Fostering a Love of Nature in Ourselves

It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over
in joy,
and acclamation.

Mary Oliver, “Mindful”

In his book, How to Raise a Wild Child, Scott Sampson writes passionately about nurturing a love for nature in children. He speaks extensively to the importance of being a nature mentor to our kids. He states: “Nothing, absolutely nothing, will spark your child’s passion for nature more than your own embodied passion for the natural world.”

That means that we have to be ready to observe, to learn, to ask questions. We need to reawaken the child in ourselves and allow ourselves to marvel and delight in the world around us.

Fortunately, our children can help us in this venture. Their own enthusiasm and interest can motivate us to see the world around us with new eyes.

I’ve experienced this firsthand. While I have always been someone sensitive to and appreciative of nature, I began to have a whole new relationship with nature when I had children. I’ve squealed with delight over spotting a pileated woodpecker soar in flight, all red-winged and glorious. I’ve impulsively ran into a black ocean illuminated by a buoyant Hunter’s moon. I’ve learned to slow down, get down on my hands and knees, and investigate the worms and pill bugs that call our back yard home.

We learned what a blue-spotted purple was on the day we discovered it.
Where to Begin

A deep and lasting sense of wonder typically emerges through abundant experience, much of it outdoors in the company of a compassionate adult.

Scott D. Sampson, How to Raise a Wild Child,

A good starting place in helping our children love nature is to get outside and observe together regularly. (I know, we are all busy – but we also tend to prioritize entertainment a lot. Trading in a half-hour of TV for a nature walk can have an amazing impact.)

We must become students of nature ourselves. That begins with learning to identify the birds, the wildflowers, the trees, the creatures in our immediate surroundings. Remember, we don’t need to know everything, but we ought to know where to look for answers (see some recommended resources below). It’s amazing how much more enjoyable it is to observe nature when we know it by name.

When our children ask, “What’s that called?” we must do our best to answer. In doing so, we show them that each created thing is worth being known. If we are faithful with answering that question, we will find that deeper, more thought-provoking questions will be close behind, as will a deep care for each living thing.

Our favorite nature resources:

Nature Anatomy and Farm Anatomy by Julia Rothman
The Tree Books for Kids and Their Grown-Ups by Gina Ingoglia
Handbook of Nature Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
– The Exploring Nature with Children curriculum by Lynn Seddon
Sibley Backyard Birding Flashcards
The Merlin Bird ID app
– Local parks, zoos, arboretum, and nature centers

Further Reading:

How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott D. Sampson
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

Liked this blog post? Check out:

Kids Need Nature and Other Take Aways from Last Child in the Woods
40 Things to Do Outside with Your Kids This Winter

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