Franklin the Turtle walks down the street on his hind legs wearing a straw hat and carrying a tiny briefcase. Entering his front door, he hangs up his hat, opens his closet door, takes off his shell and hangs it neatly. Then he walks into his living room and sits down in his recliner to watch TV in his underwear.
It's a great cartoon and most grade school students know that turtles do not sit around in their underwear and watch TV. They are, however, unsure about whether turtles can walk on their hind legs, and most think turtles remove their shells.
An elementary school textbook refers to a turtle's shell as "its shelter." Does that constitute proof that a turtle can climb in and out of its shell? It certainly seems to confirm Franklin's behavior. After all, people can leave the shelter of their homes whenever they choose.
Most children are shocked to discover that a turtle's shell is actually its bones--a brilliantly modified backbone, ribs and breastbone. Inspecting a turtle's shell answers the question. Of course, no vertebrate can climb in and out of its bones. Children need the opportunity to see the shell.
Psychologists tell us that most fears of animals are developed between ages two and eight and traditionally have been learned from parents. Increasingly, young people's fears are being learned from television and movies.
One popular movie features a giant mechanical snake that leaps into the air, encircles a full-grown man in its coils and pulls him, thrashing, into a river. Many grade school students can describe some of the more bizarre snake behaviors they witnessed watching the movie. Most believe the movie. The movie is the extent of their experience with snakes. They know what they saw.
Even "educational television" can be a poor choice for teaching a child about Nature. Commercial-filled animal channels must attract large numbers of viewers to watch those commercials. Viewers are attracted to pet programs or shows about "power animals" such as sharks, venomous snakes and piranha, not rabbits or flying squirrels or opossums. Should we be surprised then that children are apprehensive about spending a day in the woods?
During a field trip to Weldon Springs State Recreation Area, a fourth-grade class witnessed a real-life snake drama. While admiring a leopard frog basking on a bank, a northern water snake emerged from beneath a raft of algae and grabbed the frog by one of its legs. They watched, mesmerized, as the snake slowly engulfed the frog. There were squeals and shrieks and shouts of encouragement for the frog at first, but nothing the children saw will leave them afraid of snakes. All returned to school telling and retelling the story.
"Every animal is fascinating if viewed up close and in detail" Rachel Carson taught us, but not every animal can sell cereal or laundry soap.
Today's children should be learning about Nature from Nature. Field trips aren't a treat. In today's world, field trips are essential.