Living Desert: Infect Tech Kids with the Natural World
Carin Berglars and Jackie Wagner
The Living Desert
Palm Desert, California
Introduce selves and briefly describe The Living Desert, giving a short history and pertinent facts while showing slides and playing Sounds of the Desert.
Docents at the Living Desert, like all AZAD docents, are continually challenged to create exciting and new educational experiences that will encourage today’s children to explore and better understand their relationship to and develop compassion for the natural world.
If the natural world is to survive, we must get the attention of our young generation. We must appeal to them through their many ways of knowing, acknowledging both their tech world and the natural world, and seek a balance between the two. But how do we do that?
We live in a very fragile desert ecosystem, and although we are still surrounded by nature, we are fast becoming an urban area, and our children are products of that commercial world. Their world is noisy and often over stimulating, portrayed by fast-paced, action-packed TV and movie images. By contrast, nature appears to be slow moving and boring.
CONTRAST OF TODAY’S NATURAL WORLD AND THE TECH WORLD
The fact that TV impacts children’s learning processes was recognized many years ago by the late Ronald Dahl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published in 1964.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
TV rots the senses in the head!
It kills the imagination dead!
It clogs and clutters up the mind!
It makes a child so dull and blind,
He can no longer understand a fantasy,
His brain becomes as soft as cheese!
His powers of thinking rust and freeze!
So how do we wake up these “clogged and cluttered” minds? How do we turn their attention to a quieter world? How do we teach them to attend and develop patience?
In trying to get our point across we may have slightly overstated and generalized the influences of technology. Through research we do know that a child’s first experiences in nature have a tremendous influence on how he or she perceives the world as a teenager and adult.
We begin by stimulating all their senses, involve the whole body in the learning process, and model how we experience nature through observation and discovery. (Use creosote to model smelling, touching, feeling, noting small leaves, shiny leaves, fuzzy flowers, galls; we question why; how propagated; what research tells us; what Native Americans knew.) (With a picture of a chuckwalla, we model discovery through senses and questioning. Can you find a
chuckwalla? Can you describe what a chuckwalla looks like? Touch the rocks. How can he live in such a hot place? What do you notice about his skin? What do you think he is doing? I wonder why? Do you see anything that he might eat? Do you suppose he has predators? How do you think he protects himself?)
We have found that through storytelling and puppetry we are able to engage students of all ages in interactive learning experiences. We know that telling children stories stimulates their internal picture-making capabilities, their creative potential, and their natural curiosity. And we know that through story, attitudes and feelings of compassion develop.
Story of the Four-Wing Salt Bush Story of the Saguaro
Native American lore is rich with wonderful legends of the natural world, which often revere plants and animals. Docents at The Living Desert draw upon those stories to enrich their tours, especially while touring our ethno-botanical gardens, the coyote enclosure, or while enjoying the cool and lush oasis.
Children are quick to respond to such legends.
Coyote and Tortoise (puppets)
Tortoise: I was created to live in the dry desert sands. I carry my own water supply, and I have a very hard shell that protects that water. The desert is the perfect home for me. I eat only plants and flowers and find enough food to sustain me. I burrow underground to avoid extreme heat and cold.
Coyote: The desert sometimes get very hot and sometimes quite cold, but I find no shortage of food. There are all kinds of edible creatures that live in holes under the ground. The desert is a good home for me.
Tortoise: When you think of the desert, what do you see? What might you smell, or feel? (Interacting with the audience.)
Coyote: How did you develop your picture of the desert? Was it from books, TV, movies? Do you think desert sands are deserted like the name implies?
Tortoise: My species is endangered, and that is mainly because human beings build more and more homes and roads and abuse my habitat with their off-road vehicles. I must help human beings better understand and protect our desert.
Coyote: Some humans say I am a pest, but it is they who have moved into my neighborhood and offered me new things to eat.
Children are captivated by stories of the real-life behavior of animals familiar to them only as anthropomorphic characters in films, TV cartoons, and computers. Meerkats, warthogs, and hyenas, all from the Disney movie The Lion King, display fascinating real behavior. Why are these behaviors so often sacrificed for insipid human squabbling?
Likewise, the behavior of insects and spiders can be far more interesting than their human behaviors displayed in films and cartoons such as Bugs.
(Tarantula story: Using a tarantula shed, tell a brief story about the life of a tarantula. Include information about how he sheds, how the hole is dug, how she stays in her hole, lures prey with drag lines, attract the males, and lays eggs.)
At The Living Desert, docents encourage students in discovering truths about the desert. Docents act as facilitator while touring school children. Hands-on discovery carts are designed and used to integrate understandings. One example is the predator cart with various feathers, beaks, talons, owl pellets, rodent fur, etc. Another is the skull cart placed near our larger animals and containing a variety of herbivorous, omnivorous, and carnivorous skulls. Children are encouraged to touch and make their own observations.
Some of our carts contain books with related stories, pictures, and information. Docents encourage students to further research subjects interesting to them in books or on the web acknowledging and creating a bridge to the technological world.
Children come to The Living Desert with preconceived attitudes, often acquired from many hours of TV and videos. Plants are part of the scenery and paid no attention. Animals portray human attitudes. Human values are imposed to develop anthropomorphic characters. A common attitude promoted in children’s animal films is the Big Bad Wolf Syndrome. The wolf or other predator is of course the “bad guy.” Human values such as good and bad, meanness, hostility, and power are assigned to animals to develop characters for story lines.
Producers often use subtitles to develop these attitudes. In the recent animated Tarzan movie, the leopard’s lack of language and other human qualities cause him to appear “inhuman” and mean, while gorillas speak with words that portray caring and nurturing.
Docents can address the use of anthropomorphism through questing techniques. Do animals talk or communicate? Are some animals good and some mean? What behavior makes an animal good? Mean? Do we sometimes read or write stories that make animal seem human? If you were writing a story and making the animals seem human, what animals would be the “nice” ones? What animals would be the “mean” ones? Discuss.
Children must become active rather than passive listeners, recognize truths, question stereotypical behaviors, and distinguish the difference between truth and fiction. Such behavior is certainly the responsibility of parents and teachers, but docents can contribute by creating an interest in nature and making the search for truth active and fun. They can also be aware of and point out the differences between natural and fictional behaviors. Ask children to point out these differences in meerkats, hyenas, warthogs, and mountain lions.
Recognizing the fact that our children are becoming more and more connected to computers, videos, and TV, we must continue to develop better and more effective strategies to infect our children with the glories of nature:
To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand
And Eternity in an Hour
From William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence