Nature Table for June

The Space Between: Finding Dichotomy to Learn About Nature

Every month, Hilltown Families features a new nature table whose contents inspire learning along a common theme easily spotted in our surroundings that month. A tradition carried out by teachers, environmental educators, and nature-curious families, nature tables bring a little bit of the outdoors inside for inspection, dissection, identification, creative play, art projects, and lots of other educational activities. The idea behind a nature table is to help open up children’s eyes to the unique attributes of each season, and to help them learn how to see these things in nature for themselves. A nature table can include a variety of items, and is often accompanied by a set of books and/or field guides so that children can take part in further learning at their own will.

We humans do some of our best learning through observation. Even those of us who have yet to develop any consciousness surrounding this aspect of our learning process still depend on the powers of observation in learning about the world. Observation is the means of education for that which we cannot experience; while we will never experience what it’s like to sprout from an acorn and spend a season growing slender and leafy, we can watch the process and reflect on what we’ve seen.

While observation is often looked at as a process of watching, it is actually a process in which watching is very closely intertwined with both reflection and comparison, and this is especially true in learning about our surroundings. We observe the changes taking place around us throughout any given season, and we use our ability to reflect on earlier days in the season and compare these memories with what we’re currently experiencing. It is in this balance of experience and some brain-based form of Venn diagramming that our best understandings are built.

This month, our nature table focuses not on a seasonal theme but the idea of dichotomy – a division that exists between two separate groups of things. In biology (the umbrella under which the great majority of our nature table studies fall), dichotomy is also known as bifurcation, a word that refers specifically to the dichotomy of groups that are not entirely separate, but that branch from a shared origin.

While all of this sounds far more complicated than what the average elementary-aged student can wrap their mind around, the idea of bifurcation is much more familiar to most of us than we might expect (even those of us whose ages are still in the single digits). The dichotomous key, a tool with which we identify the scientific name of just about anything on earth, focuses specifically on the differences between items which have shared roots. A basic dichotomous key for tree identification might, for example, begin with the simple question of whether a tree has needles or leaves. While both conifers and deciduous trees fit into the umbrella category of trees, it is only by examining the differences between the two that we are able to narrow down our identification.

Our nature table collection hasn’t changed much this month, because we’ve focused instead on reflection, comparison, the role of perspective, and the identification of dichotomies between the objects we’ve already collected. We’ve compared our treasures (new and old) to each other and to the things we’ve seen in our surroundings, and we’ve compared each day to the previous one in order to reveal the subtleties of seasonal changes. We’re finding dichotomy everywhere, and are discovering for ourselves that no two things are truly the same.

Some books to inspire the search for dichotomy are:

[Photo credit: (cc) Luke McGuff]


Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent

A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a masters in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin lives and teaches 5th grade in the Hilltowns of Western MA and and serves on the Mary Lyon Foundation Board of Directors.

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