There is a little girl I babysit; let’s call her C. C is four years old. This past spring (I guess she was still three then) I walked her to daycare three mornings per week, and picked her up for the walk back in the afternoons. This 15 minute walk twice per day gave us ample opportunities to discover her neighbourhood, and I would chatter along about whatever interested me – the tree that was sprouting new buds, the first flowers that were opening, and the return of the birds.
I didn’t explicitly teach her very much, but somehow or other she gradually picked up the names of the birds. Before long, she could reliably identify Robins, Sparrows, Pigeons, Starlings, Mourning doves, Cardinals, among others. Eventually she could even tell the difference between “boy and girl” sparrows, and know when a cardinal was near just by its song.
Her parents were impressed (how often do you hear a three year old casually say, “Look Mama, it’s a Starling”?). I was surprised at first too, but I realized that kids exhibit such discrimination skills from a very early age – I’ll bet most two year olds can tell you the name of every “Dora” character or describe the exact details of every Disney princess. Why should birds be any different?
Even very young children are quite capable of learning an astonishing array of things, if only we present them with the opportunity, and are ourselves excited by it (C may not have learned the birds’ names so readily if she had not been exposed to my obvious and genuine interest in them as well). Even her 18-month old sister started pointing out the window and exclaiming “dobin!” excitedly whenever the red-breast would appear.
I think we expose our children to too much of an artificial childhood. It honestly makes me vaguely uncomfortable when I encounter a school aged child that can rattle off television/videogame characters and characteristics, but doesn’t even have a simple understanding of how a tree grows, the names of creatures in their own backyards, or even a basic understanding of cooking, work, money, or even how their own bodies work. I have babysat many three/four year olds that could provide me with a basic description of the digestive system, a simple but accurate explanation of the uprising in Egypt and why Mubarak was “not good”, and plenty of other things related to the world around them. Children are sponges, and they are hungry for a deep understanding of the world, albeit in language and terms appropriate to their age. They are quite capable of participating in the “real” world; we don’t need to feed them commercialized fairy tales. It doesn’t take any special training. I always describe anything to a child that they want to know, regardless of their age. I even managed once to explain an election to a toddler by simply saying that everyone in the city was going to pick the best person to “take care of” the city – she understood this perfectly, and was a lot happier than if I’d just said “you’re too little to understand.”
Partially inspired by C’s interest, I have created a deck of "bird flash cards". They have a photo of a common bird on the front (all taken by me) and the bird’s name on the back. They've been a hit with everyone I've shown them to so far.