It’s the most important word to a young child. It is often the first word she will recognize in print and that he will learn to write. Learning it is a springboard for preschool literacy learning and an integral first step towards other types of learning as well.

There is no singular word in any language more important to a child than her Name.

Names are particularly special words for little ones because they are so familiar and because they belong to us. Often children will discover and point to the first letter of their name in text and respond egocentrically: “Look! It says me! It’s my name!” This early recognition that print has meaning leads directly to a child’s development of the concept of word, phonemic awareness, and literacy.

Parents and preschool teachers know the importance of Names, and Madeleine L’Engle would agree. Naming and “un-Naming” (taking away an individual’s sense of self), is a central theme in her novel A Wind in the Door. In the story, evil beings called Echthroi are threatening universal harmony by destroying individuals’ identities.

“I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming – making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.”

When something or someone is given a name, it is given meaning. Children understand this implicitly and it is why a central schema in early childhood is Identifying and Classification. In the endless stream of Little Kid Questions, even before “But why?,” comes “What is that?” Knowing the name of something helps us to form a relationship with it. Naming elevates a thing into something that is worth knowing...something worth caring about.

Friends, it’s time we talk about the importance of Naming Nature.

Here’s something that adults who spend time with children will find completely unsurprising: Cambridge researchers surveyed four- to 11-year old children in Britain in a study seeking to ascertain “children’s knowledge of nature.” The children were shown photo cards and asked to identify the species pictured on each card. Children aged 8 and over correctly identified less than 50% of the wildlife species (such as “oak tree” or “badger”). Conversely, these same children identified Pokémon “species” (such as “Bulbasaur” or “Chimchar”) with 80% accuracy!

Clearly, the issue at hand is not whether or not today’s children have the capacity to learn a broad vocabulary of Names, it is whether or not they have the curiosity to. So how do we inspire our Pokémon-curious kiddos to have the same wont for wonder about the natural world?

We go outside. We play, we explore, and we (the grownups) express our own curiosity about the world. And, together, we learn. It’s not just the children, after all, who are experiencing this environmental shift...this disconnection from nature.

In a 2017 survey by UK-based Wildlife Trusts, a third of adults were unable to identify a common barn owl, three-quarters of those surveyed could not identify an ash tree, and two-thirds of respondents reported feeling as though they had “lost touch with nature.”

Our lives have taken us out of nature and onto pavement. When we are spending less time in a given environment, it stands to reason that our knowledge base of that space would decrease as well. Anthropologist Beth Povinelli calls this knowledge base a “literacy of nature.” We are losing our natural literacy because of the structural changes our society has undergone over the past 40 years. Seldom do children roam freely and unsupervised in the woods and fields of our communities. City-living, traffic growth, over-structured schedules, parental fear, and the lack of green space have stilted wild play and the nature knowledge that comes with it.

It should come as no surprise that our nature literacy is diminishing when we can see for ourselves that nature itself is disappearing.

We may not have the power to prevent them from paving paradise for a parking lot, but we can instill a curiosity and wonder about the natural world in children that can last a lifetime.

Walk around your school yard or home. See how many trees, flowers, or plants you can name. If you can’t identify something, get curious! Discover its Name! There are apps that allow you to take a photo of the plant species and compare it to a database to help you identify it. Do this with the kids! Then, incorporate Nature Names into your daily vocabulary. When gathering after recess, rather than lining up at the sidewalk or along the wall, pick a tree: “Okay, kids, line up at the great big Oak tree!” or “Let’s sit by the azaleas and we’ll read a story.” Point out identifying features of plants so the children, too, can begin to learn how to name them. Bring leaves, seed pods, and twigs into the classroom and, along with photo cards and botany books, set up a Nature Identification station.

As these words become a part of your routine, they will also become a part of your kids’ Nature Literacy. As their lexicon grows, so too will their relationship with their environment. Having a positive relationship, or a connection, to nature is good for the mind, body, and soul. Not only that, but it’s good for nature itself...because once you know something by name, it becomes something worth knowing about...something worth caring for…something worth protecting.

Be a Nature Namer! (These can help!)

Check out these plant identification apps...

  • PlantSnap Plant Identification ($3.99)

  • Garden Answers Plant ID (FREE)

  • iPlant (FREE)

  • Picture This Plant Identifier (FREE)

And if you have some room on your bookshelf, these are two of my favorites. (They’re GORGEOUS!)