As a child gets up to sharpen her pencil, a salamander scurries back under a rock, a fish darts to the surface looking for food, a cockroach slides under some lettuce.
As they become aware, and they do over the months, they start to watch. They bang on the glass, overfeed the fish, feign fear of the cockroach.They fail to see how perceptive these critters are, at least for awhile, but over time start to get to know them.
I promise my kids very little at the beginning of the year except that they will know less in June than they do in September, that the natural world is bigger than they know, and that they are not just part of it, they belong to it.
This last part is a big deal.
If you do not know this world, the one that bathes us with oxygen, feeds us with grain and flesh, refreshes our thirst, you cannot love it.
And, for the most part, we don't.
If you hope to teach a child the abstract models needed for science, you best start by cultivating her love of the world instead of the sad task of earning good grades for the love of her parents.
Somewhere along the way, our children lose their way.
Somewhere along the way, we encouraged this.
We threaten our laggards with tales of woe should they fail to earn a diploma, a place on the honor roll, recognition as a National Merit Finalist. Children respond to fear, as we all do--it's what drives our politics and our economy.
Fear might generate enough engineers among us, but it does not create scientists.
You cannot love the natural world in the abstract; the natural world, by definition, is sensuous. We use abstract thought to make sense of the sensuous. That defines science.
If your child sees the beauty in Fibonacci numbers but fails to see the deeper beauty of a pine cone's spiral, you are raising a professional student, and we have more than enough of those.
If your child is "wasting" her time staring at a pine cone instead of logging hours of math homework to please the adults who keep her alive, she just might hold onto her curiosity and love of the world long enough to do something useful as an adult.
I am not saying learning math is useless--quite the contrary.
A child who loves the world develops a fondness for patterns, and will have a use for numbers.