Some of the biggest lessons I ever learned were taught to me by animals. As a child I had plenty of unstructured time to wander around the farm and into the woods. We always had cats and a dog - it wasn't a family without the dog. When we were lucky enough to have the space, we had goats and a pony. When I was five my father brought home an orphan goat. We put her in a box by the wood stove and I was given an old soda bottle with a nipple to feed her. I can clearly remember her large thickly lashed eyes looking up at me and her soft nose quivering in anticipation of the warm milk.
Over the years I learned about responsibility while caring for a chipmunk, baby possum, or feral kitten. I learned patience waiting at the edge of a paddock for hours waiting to gain the trust of a previously abused horse. I had full knowledge of the birds and the bees and had witnessed birth by second grade.
One afternoon I waved to my mom from the back of an unbroke pony while she was hanging clothes on the line, no bridal, just watching her ears turn back to me questioning while I guided her with my weight and the pressure of my legs.
None of this would be all that special throughout most of history; it's still common in many parts of the world today, but for the average American child it is an alien environment that takes time to adjust to. This experience is simply not feasible for most families, but some observation of animals and nature is essential. Unstructured time alone using your imagination...creating a world to delight you...it's where creativity blooms. Young children have a sense of curiosity, but have not yet developed the ability to internalize the information obtained through reading and direct instruction. They need time to gather it and process it. Children are are miraculously gifted with the ability to ask what they need to know.
Today I brought our new chicks to my daughter's Kindergarten class. We live in Philadelphia and I'm sure many of the children have never been this close to a farm animal. After a few minutes they really settled in and started to make some very interesting observations...what if they had more time? Days before the visit their teacher asked me, "What if they ask if these chicks are the chicken they eat?" What if they do? ... I'll save that for another post.