”One of my students told me that every time she learns the name of a plant, she feels as if she is meeting someone new. Giving a name to something is a way of knowing it” – Richard Louv .
Names are important. It’s an integral part of identity, but also essential in cultivating connection. The philosopher AJ Ayer believes that unless we have a word for something, we are unable to fully conceive of it, and that there is a direct relationship between our imagination, our ability to have ideas about things, and our vocabulary.
Species identification in outdoor learning can be a contentious subject. Many people feel that it can distract from deep-level learning and the creation of real connections with nature. However, it can be argued that the identification of flora and fauna can be essential.
At the Beach School we teach names, not by rote, but through discovery. We learn ‘anemone’ because we meet one while exploring. We learn ‘cat shark’ because we find their egg cases on the tideline. Often (too often!) we find something that I don’t know the name of, so we learn it together. Young children can often absorb new language with ease. Synthetic phonics systems are useless without learning and using vocabulary in context. We really get to know these creatures and that aids future language development, models lifelong learning skills, as well as the building crucial foundations of connection with the natural world.
In outdoor learning, a good knowledge of flora and fauna aids an educator’s ability to expect and anticipate the natural environment as a resource for further discovery. If a learner’s interest is more stimulated by their senses or by the habits of fauna, then having a good knowledge can help you shape their learning. For example, encouraging them to consider what the plants smell like? What does this texture feel like? What do you think this creature eats? By supporting an interest and respect for nature, this can grow in to a life long desire to learn about ecology and an understanding of the importance of sustainability.
Whether you are rockpooling, or just going on an autumnal minibeast hunt – rather than asking learners the names, try talking to them more deeply about what they have met:
- Is it a plant or an animal?
- What colour is it?
- What part of a plant is it?
- How many legs does it have?
- What part of the animal left this mark?
- Where do you think it lives?
- Does it live high up or low down in the woodland?
- Does it need to eat? What does it eat?
- Does it move fast or slow?
If you are unsure about the names of flora and fauna you may encounter, carry a ID book, download an app. I have to look up species on an incredibly regular basis (especially insects!) but it’s so good for children to see that’s it is absolutely okay not to know all the answers. We need to promote natural literacy, but as a skill that is developed over a lifetime. It’s hands on literacy alongside building real relationships. We all deserve to have these amazing creatures in our lexicon. Because we will only protect what we know and it’s difficult to care about something that you don’t know the name of.
If you’d like to read more about how we learn at the Beach School, you can find all the posts in the ‘Beach Schooled’ series here.