Why "Fun Facts" Have No Place in Nature Education

Recently, a parent of a camper told me that when her daughter hears a list of "fun facts" about a creature coming on, she shuts her ears.  What is this about?

You've probably had this experience yourself.  You and your family are being led by a docent on a tour of an aquarium or a zoo, for example, and suddenly you receive a download of the supposedly interesting facts about a creature, having nothing to do with what you are seeing now and likely relating to how the creature behaves in the wild.  Where is the attachment point for you to appreciate these facts much less remember them?

At Marin GreenPlay, we have given much thought to what connects kids with nature.  And we've given the "fun facts" a rest.  So where do we start teaching kids about nature?  First, we let them lead.  Starting with our young campers, we encourage observations.  Kids draw the best and most original conclusions from watching creatures in nature when they are not told what to look for or what they can expect to see.  And although much is known, it a baseline fact that no one knows everything about the creatures we see every day.  

A camper might exclaim, "I think it's so cool that water bugs can walk on water . . . they must have super powers!"  To then degrade that amazing conclusion with instruction on how water molecules work to form surface tension and how the water strider has adapted special body parts to make use of the above water niche adds nothing.  Indeed, water bugs do have super powers.  Our older campers, having ceased to believe in super powers, are more likely to see scientific reasons for the water strider's abilities.  And through experimentation that we make available, they can test out their ideas.  No fun facts necessary.  The learning happened organically, in a hands-on, non-abstract way.

We also encourage them to look at the ways that creatures are like us.  That mama bird that carefully feeds her babies and keeps the nest clean until they are ready to fledge.  She's a lot like a human mom.  The empathy born from realizing that many creatures exhibit similar behaviors to those of humans after watching them at work creates a connection that lasts forever.  And nurtures the ability to be empathetic, a critical aspect of development.

At Marin GreenPlay Camp, it's not likely we'll ever have a "Shark Week," mostly because it's nearly impossible for kids to observe sharks in the camp context in a way that would lead to their own original, testable observations and conclusions.  But what we will continue to do, year after year, is connect kids with the habitats that exist where they live, so that they understand them in a hands on way and want to protect them.  

So yep, they'll have their own ideas of why when millipedes eat their own eggs and poop them out covered with poop.  The camper's realization that "Gross!  No other creatures would want to eat those eggs" made all on their own will show them that they can figure out some of this nature stuff without the "fun facts" and with the benefits to self esteem that come from figuring things out for yourself.

As always, we'd love your feedback.  See you on the trail!