Monday, August 24, 2015

What's in a Name

Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?  Perhaps not.  But what I have learned from my granddaughter this summer is that names are important.

I used to train teachers in using outdoor activities and realized that some of them feared what might be called “ the unknown”.  I used to say, “You don’t need to know the names of the things in nature”.  I had learned this tack from a naturalist who used to say that your name isn’t the most important thing about you.  While true, names are important.  It makes you different than all the other beings that look very similar.  The same is true for names of plants and animals. I learned how important this is as I watched my granddaughter gain competence and confidence in being outdoors in nature.

As my husband and I spent time each day outside, we pointed out some obvious species.  These would include Red Bud, Hackberry, Mayapple, Black-eyed Susan, 5-lined Skink, Gray Tree Frog, etc.  Along with the name, we pointed out some of the key characteristics that would help in identification.   In the case of the Red Bud, the heart-shaped leaf is a distinctive trait.  These species were pointed out many times until it was our granddaughter pointing them out to us!

It seems the more species she learned, the more comfortable she appeared to be in nature.  When I think about it, at first I’m sure our 80 acre wood seemed just like a field of green....  Like a jungle.  This could be intimidating to a small child (or my teachers)!  But by slowly learning a few of the more common and easily identified species, a level of comfort, and a young naturalist was born. It was part of the summer transformation.

The next step was to use field guides.  We often did this when we encountered something that looked distinctive, but we didn’t know what it was.  We had a stack of guides specifically written for young people along with adult level field guides.  Although she was not yet reading, she could find the pictures of species that resembled something we had seen in nature.  From there, we would go to the more specialized guides.  Once we found the species and put a name on it, it was more likely to be remembered.

As an example, one day we observed a bee building a nest on our deck roof.  We had seen many different types of bees over the summer, but watching this one, looking it up, and attaching a name to it made it a species that she would remember.  Days after identifying the species from the field guides, she saw another and said, “Look, there’s a Mason Bee!”. I doubt she would have remembered if we had not taken the time to look it up and find its name.

So here was another lesson I learned from my granddaughter: Learning the names of plants and animals is an important step in competence and confidence building for a young naturalist.


  1. It is easy to spread the mistakenly held belief that names are not important. Teachers and new naturalists are concerned about learning all those names, but the name is what often makes the connection to previous knowledge. Thank you for pointing this out. I agree, your granddaughter would not have easily identified new plants or animals without the connection to a name. Names often give lots of clues about the species, what it eats, where it is found, the color, size, or shape.

  2. Yes. I remember a time that I was showing teachers how to collect quadrant data. They were to write all the species in their square meter. One group was done in less than 2 minutes. When I looked at the data, they had written grass for about 7-8 different species, not recognizing differences or intimidated by not knowing the names. That was a learning experience for me.