Saturday, October 28, 2006
Hunting for Knowledge
Yesterday both of my girls had scheduled field trips to separate destinations. My husband accompanied our youngest and her class to the pumpkin patch for hayrides and cider and Halloween stories. I went with our elementary-school-age daughter on a mushroom hunting expedition to a local wooded park. One of her teachers is a mycologist (mushroom expert) and has been teaching the kids how to identify fungi. While the vast majority of these pre-adolescents would never deign to actually eat a mushroom, they have been eagerly anticipating this opportunity to don gloves and dig them out of the ground.
These children have spent weeks learning the anatomy of mushrooms and bringing specimens in to class to share. More than once, we have spotted some unusual mushrooms growing in our neighborhood and come back later to collect them only to find that some overzealous neighbor has mowed them down. Curses!
On Friday, 24 students and 12 adults clambered onto a school bus; sack lunches, non-latex gloves and paper bags in hand, to make the half hour trip to the state park where we would go a-hunting. Once there, we fanned out on the dozen or so trails, two children for each adult, and began searching. The day was a foggy, blustery one and after about 15 minutes we were wishing we had worn at least one extra layer between our shirts and windbreakers. We carefully selected long sticks to use as tools to push aside the damp leaves. Girls and boys alike sent squeals careening off the trees each time they located a mushroom.
The first little white parasol my daughter found was carefully extracted from the leaf litter and she shouted, “I got the mycelium! Look!” She held up the mushroom to display the root-like tendrils hanging down.
“Oh, cool!” It took a while for me to get in to the routine of looking down for little camouflaged fungi. Some of them had stems no wider than a pin, but by the time we had been hunting for an hour or so, we had collected over a dozen different varieties of mushrooms and our bags were over halfway full.
As we returned to the meeting area and the children reverently placed their treasures onto the white butcher paper that covered the picnic table, I was astonished. Together we had collected hundreds and hundreds of mushrooms. The solemn quiet was occasionally punctuated by an excited identification. Chanterelle! Look, it’s a puffball! Turkey tail!
These children were so elated to have surpassed their own expectations. They showed me how to carefully tear a mushroom in half to identify special characteristics. They pointed out the poisonous ones and cautioned me to wash my hands carefully before eating. They knew which ones had been found under trees, growing on tree trunks, and which we had found in the grass. The class favorite seemed to be one called an inky cap whose gills and cap start to disintegrate and leak a black “inky” substance that coats their hands upon maturing.
I must admit, I was originally unsure of how the dissection and identification of mushrooms was helping my daughter in school, but I left that field trip convinced of one thing. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the specific subject matter is. So long as the teacher is knowledgeable and passionate about the topic and is willing to allow the children to have some hands-on experience, they will find it exciting. These children displayed such ownership and pride at their accomplishments. I am sure that they will retain the intimate knowledge of fungi that they have learned. More importantly, however, I believe that they have learned that they are capable of delving into subjects they never before found interesting and discovering a world of possibilities.