Outdoors: Small wonders

My son’s passion for heavy equipment is rivaled only by his recent desire to be playing outdoors at all times.

They tell me the dumper obsession is a common phase among toddler boys, who seem to have it mysteriously hard-wired into their little bodies. For 2-year-old Beau, “dumper” is a multitasking noun that he uses not only to hail dump trucks but also to identify rollers, graders, tractors, combines, balers, bucket loaders, bulldozers and cement mixers. Curiously, only “backhoe” seems to merit his verbal discernment: “ahk-ohhh.”

Call of the wild: Rocks in one hand and Spidey in the other, Beau Bianchi gets excited about the outdoors during the N.C. Arboretum’s Wee Naturalist program. Photo by Melanie Mcgee Bianchi

But encouraging Beau’s yen for nature isn’t so easy. In our backyard, the failed garden has become a sandbox replete with fecund rows of toy dumpers. Most of the time, it suffices, though it’s clearly no Eden out there. A lack of shade trees and a super-steep grade make our lot an iffy space for a roaming little one (though I’m sure the hill will someday reveal its play potential).

I’m thankful, then, for Wee Naturalist, a twice-weekly, August-through-May series of classes at The North Carolina Arboretum aimed at preschoolers accompanied by a parent or guardian. The program is coordinated by Katie Edwards, who holds a degree in outdoor education from Montreat College. And though indoor story and craft time bookend each two-hour class, the highlight is an educational walk in the woods.

Carnivorous dinosaurs were the theme of an October class we attended, and the 3- and 4-year-olds ate it up. Edwards exudes the sort of earnest vivacity that makes any young teacher a star: She’s the patient, pretty one you still remember years later. One little boy, clearly a repeat visitor, couldn’t restrain himself from running up and hugging her during story time.

My own son, however, wasn’t quite so ready to play along. Never having been in daycare, he was making his debut in a classroom setting, and he showed way more interest in trying to liberate a live baby turtle from its tank than in coloring a cartoon allosaur or listening to “Miss Katie.” He’s too young for this, I thought, trying to ignore the example set by the other 2-year-old there that day—a nanny-accompanied girl who observed the proceedings with rapt attention.

But Edwards bears it all without a blink, encouraging an adventurous spirit above everything else. With 2-year-olds, she says, the key is to teach them to appreciate nature early on and to reinforce the exposure whenever possible.

“The more times they come back, the more they understand the routine, and we try to make sure it’s a comfortable routine for them,” Edwards explains. And getting them young supports the program’s goals, because older preschoolers tend to arrive with already-skewed notions of stewardship, she notes, describing the “little teaching moments” that can arise in such a situation: “I had one little girl who stamped all over some ants that she saw outside, saying how bad they were. I told her that they had a right to live, too.”

Toddlers “have to get their feet wet first and become used to what’s going on in the class,” says Edwards. “Eventually, they’ll find out that nature is exciting, and they’ll start asking questions.”

Beau wasn’t asking any questions yet, though he did moan “Go out, go out, go out” during the remainder of story time, prompting me to whisper to a nearby mother, “He only just turned 2.”

And once we were out on the warm, golden trail, he puffed up proud as a toadstool, adopting his signature strut—chest stuck out, fists pumping for extra acceleration—and stomping merrily ahead of the rest of the class as they stopped at various points along the way. While the other boys and girls took turns exploring a hollow tree trunk, Beau chucked handfuls of pebbles over his head like a parade Santa tossing out Tootsie Rolls. While they helped Miss Katie build a baby-dinosaur nest out of twigs and leaves, Beau rolled in the dirt, as happy as any pup. At one point he literally blazed his own trail, dashing down a side path with so much authority that several older boys broke away from their moms and followed him.

“Beau really owned it out there today,” was Miss Katie’s kind assessment of the spectacle. And while I wondered whether I should be concerned about my son’s unruliness or proud of his confidence, she added, “It was really cool to see.”

The hike was capped by an outdoor game—a relay race featuring cotton-ball dinosaur eggs. Back in the classroom, Beau relieved a fellow student of his crackers, forcing us to forgo craft time and make a hasty exit, but not before saying “bye-bye” to some new animal friends—a cage of Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

“With 2-year-olds, it’s all about the ‘wow’ factor,” notes Edwards. “They’re just beginning to learn that ‘Here is this great big world, and look, I’m a part of it.’”

Later that day, Beau grabbed a handful of soil in his backyard “garden,” looked at it seriously for the first time and, quite suddenly, added a new word to his vocabulary that elicited my own “wow” moment: “Mama, dirt,” he informed me sternly. “Dirt. Dirt. Dirt.”

Throughout the school year, Wee Naturalist classes for kids ages 2-4 run from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., Mondays and Tuesdays at The North Carolina Arboretum. Cost is $6 per class or $20 per month. See www.ncarboretum.org for a list of class themes (on the home page, click on “Youth Education Programs”). For more information or to register, contact Katie Edwards at 665-2492, ext. 244, or at kedwards@ncarboretum.org.

[Melanie McGee Bianchi is a stay-at-home mom and freelance journalist.]

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