Something pretty exciting is happening in the wild garden. It’s spring. The frogs and newts are out from hibernation, and getting on with, y’know, what they do in spring (that’s another post though). And that’s not the most exciting thing for me – I do love it, have done every year of my life. It’s the kids’ reactions.
I’m lucky to be a playworker in community garden in urban london. It’s somewhere where children can wander in, and if they’re over 8, they can do this independently of their parents/carers, if they’re younger then they can come as a family. We’re next to a busy road, but are screened from it by trees and our building. Some children don’t come very often, but there’s a few who keep coming back. And sometimes there’s someone who comes for the first time.
With a new person, they don’t always become a regular. Often though, there’s something which they’re excited by, and a bit scared of but then they overcome that fear and hesitation and experience something new. These moments are happening in the wild garden. Urban kids are jerky. They respond sharply to each other. They are alarmed as they slip on uneven ground. And they glance around without focussing closely.
Then they see something move in the pond.
“Aaagrh what’s that?”
“It’s a frog, I can see it?”
They’re not sure about putting their hand or knee down on the dirty ground but they can’t balance without doing so, so their nets dip wildly. I ask them if they can see anything where they’re dipping. They can’t, it’s murky where they stirred it up. I lean in slowly, getting someone to watch the end of the net to develop their underwater eyes, and we scoop up a newt (common/smooth newt, Lissotriton vulgaris – which in the UK is protected from sale, but may be captured, unlike the Great Crested Newt).
“Does he bite?”
“it looks like a fish!” “No, like a lizard”
“Can you touch it?”
Most of them won’t come close, let alone touch a newt at first. It’s a rule that you can only touch creatures from the pond if you dip your hand in pond water so it’s cool and damp first. But after a while, sometimes after ten minutes, once the most screamy friend has gone away, they’ll come, and they’ll look at the newt’s golden eyes, his spotty (or her speckly) belly. They can see which is male and which is female (the females have bulging middles full of eggs, and the males have bulging balls at this time of year). Some of the kids it takes longer to break through the hesitation. They have to slow down to observe. But once they’ve seen, they’re telling the others, and showing them. They’re learning through doing and looking and thinking, because something’s there right in front of them, and they need to work out what’s going on. They’ll remember that the newt can breathe in air as well as water, and when they come out, they’ll see that newtings, with their external gills, can’t breathe air. And this knowledge is not abstract, but is immediately shaping their actions.