The Caterpillar’s Gift

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

During interviews with people who work in Nature Explore Classrooms, I often hear accounts of children who experience transformations during their play and learning outdoors.  These stories have been woven into the larger blog posts about the classrooms, often losing their richness in the process.  In a new blog series, I will be separating these stories into smaller snapshots that show how Nature Explore Classrooms have impacted people’s lives.  By doing so, I hope to regain the full power of these wonderful events.

The stories you will discover in this series are written in an “inspired by true events” style.  The details of each piece will be as told to me, and will be checked with it’s source.  Yet some of the thinking of the children involved will be my hypotheses, especially when the children are too young to express themselves fully in words.  I believe this is an honest way to convey the power of the many transformations children experience during play in Nature Explore Classrooms.

Recently I was told a story of a four-year-old boy’s transformation that he himself could not tell- other than through his behavior, and in a few simple words.  He has a severe language delay. 

The events are accurately described.  The feelings are my conjectures.


The Caterpillar’s Gift

Johnny had trouble speaking, making very short sentences, even words.  Three syllable words were a challenge.  He was often frustrated by seeing the ease with which other children his age could make their needs known to adults.  And he saw this all day, every day.  Johnny had the same wants and needs that the other children had long since put into words.  Inside, he was like them.  On the outside, and to others, he wasn’t.

Johnny knew that the teachers in his preschool cared for him, and that they tried to understand and help him as much as they could.  But even their kindness couldn’t erase his dilemma.  His frustration didn’t help anything, but he couldn’t help expressing it.  Outbursts were common — indoors.

Outdoors, his behaviors in the school’s Nature Explore Classroom were very different.  Outdoors, as indoors, he still avoided contact with peers and teachers when possible.  Yet the freedom to run around and to choose his own activities allowed him respite from his frustrations.  He often felt happy and relaxed outdoors, exploring as he saw fit, connecting with others occasionally, and only on his own terms.

DSCN4030_1 2One day, he watched from a distance as other children surrounded a small plant, observing something intently.  Johnny couldn’t see what they saw, and didn’t want to risk an outburst by entering the group.  So he stayed where he was, and continued to watch them.

When they left, he moved in.  They had been watching a small caterpillar inch its way up and down a plant.  Johnny, like the other children, found the caterpillar’s slow progress along the stem very interesting.  Transfixed, he watched its journey for a good four minutes.

Yet he wanted to experience the caterpillar’s movement more closely.  He ran to get a magnifying glass, and again, spent many minutes watching the show.

Blog pictureTeachers, who he often avoided, were nearby.  But this time he had something to share with them.  By using the magnifying glass he had discovered great details about the caterpillar and its journey, details that he alone had experienced.  This close observation was his discovery: he owned it.  He now had something to share that didn’t need words.  Now he was just like the other children when they wanted to share their discoveries.

He sought out a teacher, brought her to his caterpillar, and shared his experience with her. “In that situation he didn’t have to use any words, and that gave him a platform to invite a staff person into his world and share that moment of nature.  He was so thrilled,” said his teacher. 

 No words were necessary.

But Johnny found one.

“Cat-er-pill-ar,” he said.  “Cat-er-pill-ar!”

Nature Explore is still working on a title for this new blog series. If you have an idea, please leave your suggestion in the comment section below!