Learning with Nature: Moments of Serendipity

The memory of my grandmother’s voice and joy as she declared, “Serendipity!” came flooding back to me last week. I was spending the day with my friend’s 5-year-old daughter and towards the end of the day, as Sydney stopped suddenly and called out “A slug!” I immediately thought of my grandmother and serendipity. After all, serendipity is the happy or beneficial occurrence of events by chance. Let me explain why this was an unexpected but fortunate moment…

When I greeted Sydney that morning, I presented her with a field guide for identifying slugs and snails that my dad had sent her as a gift. As I handed it to her, Sydney’s dad said, “We were just talking about slugs the other day!” Sydney’s eyes sparkled and she excitedly asked if we could read it as she headed to a comfy spot on the couch.

We proceeded to read the book and learn lots of interesting tidbits from the informational text. Did you know snails and slugs are in the Class Gastropodawhich means “stomach foot”?

After a brief exploration of the book, and Sydney writing her name on the inside cover so everyone knew it was her book, we moved on to playing a matching game. There was a snail on one set of the cards. When we first saw it, we both looked at each other surprised and said, “Snail!”

Once the game was over it was time to head out for our daily hike in the woods. It was a cool, rainy, fall day with lots of damp leaves littering the ground. As we were nearing home, I heard Syndey yell out, “A slug!” She looked at me with such awe and joy and said, “We were just talking about slugs!” It was a serendipitous moment—a chance encounter that made her so happy.

This is what learning with nature is all about—the chance encounters that allow for individual connection and meaning. In this particular case Sydney could now observe a slug up close and watch it move, helping to make sense of why it might be called “stomach foot.”

For me as the teacher it was a moment I couldn’t have planned for. Sure, I could have found a slug ahead of time and shown it to her. But it was the unexpected, chance moment that created an extra emotion of happiness—making the learning even more meaningful to the child. And it was that unexpected moment of joy and connection that immediately made me think of my grandmother saying, “Serendipity!”

Sydney suggested we take the slug back to the house to look in our book for what it was. I of course thought that was a great idea. The day had come full circle.

While these events may have been unexpected, we as adults can help increase the chances of these moments of learning with nature.

In this story, adults provided the child with an informational text on a topic relevant to the child’s life and place in the world. Her dad made an explicit connection to a previous conversation they’d had about snails and slugs. The social game of concentration allowed for another moment of connection. In this particular case we both pointed out and celebrated when a snail appeared in the game of concentration, but if she hadn’t noticed I still could have highlighted with something like, “Oh, it’s a snail like we were just reading about.”

Finally, we went outside to experience the natural world. I didn’t have a goal in mind and most definitely wasn’t searching for a slug. By being outside, however, we had more opportunities to learn with the natural world. And this particular day we just happened to find a moment of pure joy in the form of a slug.

(By the way, we made a home for the slug in the garden because Sydney was sure it would be really happy in the garden.)