My daughter woke me up early on Sunday. The sun was barely up, and I heard her whisper in my ear: “Bug safari time, Mom. Let’s go flip some rocks.” I turned my head to see my 5-year-old pulling her messy blond curls out of her face while tugging on my shirt. “Get dressed. Let’s go outside!” With this, our big, black dog trotted in and started trying to convince me to get up as well. They were both quite insistent, but truth be told, the request was music to my ears. “Let’s go outside!” That’s all I needed to hear.
Our adventure began about 10 feet from our back porch, and over the next hour or more, we probably covered another 5 feet. We flipped rocks and watched the earth squirm before us. Roly-polies, grubs, and earthworms were touched, picked up gently, and named. As they were returned to the Earth, quickly burrowing back into the soil, my daughter would say her goodbyes to each and tell me a little something about the important jobs that each species has. Earthworms are ecosystem engineers, she tells me proudly. (Her mother is a biologist after all; she knows some technical terms!) “They make the soil better by eating leaves and mixing it all up.” “These grubs are baby moths,” she declares. “I don’t know what moths do, but they are neat looking.” My job in all of this is to listen and roll the bigger rocks, but my 5-year-old leads the bug safari. I ask questions and make sure she is being gentle with the wildlife she finds.
The “bugs” we find on our safari are indeed wildlife, and all are important to the proper function of our ecosystem. And I am proud that my daughter has made this connection and values their role in our lives. We have talked about how most of the animals we find under rocks are not really bugs, but her enthusiasm for calling our adventures a bug safari keep me from focusing on the correct classification of these critters. At five years old, what is most important is that she wants to go outside and watch and talk about the wildlife that is in her own back yard.
I speak to school groups all the time, and it is one of my favorite aspects of my job at the San Diego Zoo. Because my research is focused on some of the largest and most charismatic of animals (pandas, polar bears, and the rest of the bear family), when I speak to children, it is easy to get their attention, and I really don’t have to do much explaining to convince them that it is worth our efforts to save giant pandas and polar bears. The greater challenge is convincing children (and adults) that the smallest of organisms are valuable, too. The bacteria under the sea ice are also being impacted by climate change-driven sea ice losses, and their role in the health of the world’s oceans cannot be understated. Bumblebees, often considered to be the nemesis of a barefoot childhood, are essential to the health of our biosphere—that’s pretty important!
I admit that when I talk with schoolchildren about giant pandas or polar bears, I use this as an opportunity to also get them interested in the plants and animals in their own backyards. I am a firm believer in the inherent value of our natural world and the important role outdoor play and experience play in child development. When I talk to kids about polar bears, and they ask me what they can do to help save them, I tell them: “Go outside and play! Ride your bike! Play tag! Jump in the ocean!” If my 5-year old were there, she would tell them to go on a bug safari. These alternatives to video games and television bring children closer to nature and empower them to reduce their carbon footprint. Amazingly, the simple act of playing outside provides a direct connection to wildlife conservation and is invaluable in many other ways.
Summer is just around the corner. I hope we all take advantage of this season of late-sunsets to play outside!