The kids and I took a long road trip over Memorial Day weekend to Vermont and back. To entertain us along the way, I attempted to find some kid-friendly podcasts to break up the steady diet of television shows, I Spy, and whining. After running through countless poorly-produced story podcasts where the hosts always had mysteriously thick British accents, I finally found an excellent science-based one called Brains On (more on that below).
During an episode called Secrets that we heard while making our way back across Route 2, a retired UPS driver and amateur etymologist named M.J. Hatfield shared her passion for bugs and other tiny creatures. “One of the things that really got me on insects is I don’t focus very well and I don’t pay attention very well,” she said. “And with insects, I can see something every day that I have never seen before in my life.” The kids and I made eye contact in the rearview mirror and smiled.
The next evening, back home, we decided to wander out and see how the garden was coming along. As so often happens when puttering in a garden, one thing led to another and my husband and I found ourselves moving a pile of rocks. They had been sitting in one spot for four years or more but those rocks suddenly needed to be moved to another location right away. If you have a garden, you know how these things occur.
As we lifted one my daughter said, “Look at all the ants! Wait, what are they doing?” There indeed was a mass of black ants scurrying around, grabbing small white balls, and then heading off, sometimes crashing into one another in their haste and burden. In shifting the rock, we’d disturbed an ant nursery and the poor confused little workers were in a sudden frenzy trying to carry their eggs to safety. My husband very gently lifted some of the ants and eggs up so the kids could take a good look, and then set them back down on their way. After a bit we decided to let them settle back down and picked up the next rock and, her curiosity piqued, my daughter looked under this one, too.
“A spider!” Sure enough, under this rock was a spider. It hunched down as we moved the rock and glared at us suspiciously for a moment before moving on. I was starting to turn away when I suddenly noticed it wasn’t walking, it was moving rhythmically in a circle, almost like it was dancing. “What’s that thing under it?” my daughter asked. I looked closer. “It’s a…it’s an egg sac! Oh my goodness, she’s still building her egg sac.” And she was. Caught in the middle of tiny nest of pure white webbing was a yellow blob (“It looks like a yolk,” said my son) and she was turning around and around on it, rapidly covering it with more white.
She wasn’t happy we were there, but her work was more important than a few oglers. The kids watched, captivated, and after a bit I suggested we just put the rock back where it was so she could finish in peace. We set it back down very, very gently, ensuring that there was still a gap where she was, and went back to work.
When I noticed my daughter wander into the house a bit later, I followed her so that I could get one of them started on bedtime. “Let’s head up for bath,” I announced when I walked in. Instead she held up her magnifying glass, “I wanted to see the spider again.” I looked at the clock, shrugged, and walked back out with her.
We lifted the rock and crouched down around the hole and took turns trading the magnifying glass around. The spider was still working away, although almost no yellow was left. The ants had mostly disappeared, but we were able to peel back some leaves to find the entrance to their nest, a few harried nursery workers still visible. Optimal bath time came and went, and still we watched in the graying light.
“It’s just like that lady said,” commented my daughter. “If you pay attention, you can see new stuff every day.”
M.J. Hatfield, you were right.
If you have kids who like science or the natural world, I highly recommend giving Brains On a listen. The podcasts are generally around 20 to 30 minutes and cover a range of topics. My kids, at 5 and 7, are definitely on the young end for this show and I think it would be excellent for kids up to age 12. Some episodes are pretty straightforward, but the Extinction episode went pretty in-depth on DNA and cloning, to the point where I thought my kids had tuned out. I reconsidered when they later gave their father a blow-by-blow account of why dinosaurs couldn’t be cloned. You can listen to Brains On through iTunes or whatever podcast service you prefer (I use Podcast Addict) or, if you prefer, direct on the website itself: www.brainson.org