This article about the benefits of being curious about nature was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Cottage Life magazine.
“We dissected Chris!” my seven-year-old niece, Jocelyn, squealed over the phone, leaning heavily on the second word. She was calling from my parents’ cabin on Lac Ste. Anne, Alta. And while Jocelyn is known for her piercing voice, she was talking more loudly than normal thanks to the cacophony of frogs in the background.
Last spring, the sloughs that flank the cottage were full to the brim. The amphibious burps and grunts echoing off them were remarkable. The sounds transported me back to my youth, when my brothers and I spent countless hours catching frogs and filling up plastic pails with as many intriguing creatures as they could hold. I’m not sure what we had planned for these new “pets”—and why we thought we needed hundreds—but my parents were grateful that it occupied us on rainy days when cabin fever would have otherwise set in.
Well, that weekend last spring, my nieces Jocelyn, Sydney, and Mallory, and Mallory’s friend Carly were sleeping over at the cabin with Grandma and Grandpa. Despite the cold and the drizzle, they’d spent the previous day outside, shin-deep in the sloughs. Clearly the allure of the constant croaking was as irresistible to them as it had been to my brother and me at that age.
Mom had supplied them with buckets and left them to the hours of peering into the murky water, catching frogs by the dozens. Every frog got a name, and the kids concocted elaborate backstories about these small, ribbitting lives. There was Bob, Jeff, Steve, Angela, Hope, and Chris, just to name a few. The frogs were given families. Each family had their own bucket as a home.
Every once in a while, someone would run into the cabin to give an update on how many they had collected and to describe the different types of frogs they’d found. They searched websites to identify what kinds of frogs were living loudly just outside the cabin door. One of the frogs ended up being a toad.
Because the kids were concerned that their new friends needed to be fed, they researched diets of Central Alberta frogs and began to collect flies and other insects. It was the sort of play that ends up being slyly educational.
As it got dark, they turned the buckets on their sides, wished the frogs and the toad a good night, and went indoors. The creatures proceeded to escape from their buckets and presumably made their way back to the swamps.
Well, except for poor old Chris. He was found dead the next morning.
The kids, nonetheless, are practical. Carly suggested that they dissect the dead frog so they could see its heart, lungs, and other organs. As gruesome an idea as this sounded coming from a sweet fifth-grader, it sort of made sense. The girls had already spent the day before learning about the different species that were in the area. They had learned that frogs, which live in both aquatic and terrestrial environments, are critical indicator species, giving insight into how both the land and the waterways are faring. Just as the croaking led them to explore the sloughs, and catching frogs led them to learn to identify the species, now a dead frog became a cadaver for curious potential future surgeons or veterinarians. Plus the grade-seven cow-eyeball dissection was coming up on the school curriculum. Why not get a leg up on their peers by looking at lungs, heart, stomach, and intestines?
This was a great reminder of how unscheduled days and a rich physical environment allow curiosity to flourish at the cottage. How many times did my brothers and I learn vital life lessons simply by heeding a “what if,” a “how,” or a “why”? What happens if you tip the canoe in the middle of the lake? How far can the snowmobile go before it runs out of gas? Why shouldn’t you poke a large paper wasp nest with a short stick?
Notwithstanding the quality of my generation’s inquiries, it looks like we’re all programmed to be inquisitive. But why? Well, I was curious about that too. So while my dad helped the girls by finding instructions on how to dissect a frog and assembling the pins and corkboard, scissors, and knives needed, I looked for answers about why curiosity seems so innate to us busy humans. And what it is about being at the cabin, away from the formal structures of education, that makes learning so fun and irresistible.
As it turns out, we could fill aircraft hangars with scientific papers and books on anxiety and depression, but there’s been very little study on the role of curiosity in our lives. We’re well equipped for lifelong learning, thanks to our large brains relative to our body size. But now we’re starting to understand the role that curiosity plays in our evolutionary advantage. According to Todd Kashdan and Paul Silvia, writing in the Handbook of Positive Psychology, “when curious, people ask questions, manipulate interesting objects, read deeply, examine interesting images, and persist on challenging tasks.” The psychologists conclude that curiosity leads to learning and exploration and builds knowledge and competence. Furthermore, it gives those who are curious, “an advantage in creating a fulfilling existence compared with their less curious peers.”
In 2015, Harvard University Press published a surprise bestseller called The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood by the American psychologist Susan Engel. She writes that you give kids time and opportunity to explore their environment and it’s a recipe that nurtures their creativity. And this is crucial because curiosity in kids is just as important in predicting future academic success as their innate intellectual capabilities. Engel goes so far as to say that curiosity is the “linchpin of intellectual achievement.”
Perhaps when kids are at the cabin, poking about in nature, unhurried and uninterrupted by the compression of their city lives, they’re actually engaged in deep learning.
Lucky kids, I thought, as Jocelyn recounted in gory detail how they had gone about the dissection. Suddenly, my hours spent tipping canoes and aggravating stinging insects seemed less like a waste of time. Whether acquainting ourselves with key indicator species such as frogs and toads, or just messing about in lakes, forests, prairies, and the mountain air, the combination of open space and open minds allows questions and wonder to bubble to the surface. We can all learn a thing or two, at any age. The lesson, after all, is to remain curious.