What’s In A Name?

What’s In A Name?

Today I spent an entirely exhausting but wonderfully fulfilling day in the gardens. Michelle’s family came over to “Help Gammy”. Seven year old Bug learned to prune a small crab apple tree. Five year old Fairy showed her might as she hauled bags of mulch. And three year old Pixie impressed us all as she shoveled pea gravel into the wheelbarrow with “Othy”. (Othy… their name for Tim, as in Timothy… Tim Othy… Othy. Cute, right?) Anyway… At one point Fairy came over and asked, “What’s that plant called?” Over the winter some of the plant markers got shifted or the growing spring plants covered our painted rocks that bear their names. Together we went through the garden we were working on to make sure all the name rocks were visible and by the correct plant. By each plant, Fairy used her budding reading skills to try to decipher the names. There were lovely names like Foam Flower, Coral Bells, and Porcupine Grass. For the rest of the day, each time she passed a plant, she’d look at the rock and proudly say the plant’s name. It reminded of this blog I had written for One Generation to Another May 20, 2008. I hope you enjoy it!  

Tim: (Getting into the car after popping into Kroger to pick up some milk.) Peggy said there are tornado warnings.

Me: (More perplexed by the name Peggy then the impeding doom, I rack my brain trying to figure out who Peggy is. Coming up blank…) Who the heck is Peggy?

Tim: The cashier.

Me: How do you know her?

Tim: I just told you she was the check out clerk.

Me: Do you know her from somewhere else?

Tim: No.

Me: Then how do you know her name?

Tim: It was on her badge.

Me: Then why use her name like it means something to me?

Tim: Because it’s her name.

Me: You’re very odd.

This gives you some kind of understanding of the riveting conversions Tim and I have! Having said that…to me a name is personal…the use of one’s name implies intimacy. To Tim it simply conveys friendliness. Truth be told, people respond surprisingly well to him. I’m the kind of person whose dander flies with the first sign of confrontation. Tim becomes all smiles…and uses people’s names. Actually, this is a tried and true marketing strategy. Next time you get a telemarketing phone call notice how they utilize your name thus suggesting friendship and closeness. It’s much harder to turn down “Bob” when he keeps calling you “Kathy” than a nameless voice calling you ma’am or sir. (Unless, of course, your name isn’t Kathy!)

Anyway, names are powerful and the use of names does provide us with a sense of ownership, intimacy and responsibility. Right now I’m reading a very interesting book titled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. I’m only a quarter of the way into the book but being a true believer that the average American child does not spend nearly enough “exploratory” time outside, I found the phrase Nature-Deficit Disorder to be intriguing. The author shares a conversation with naturalist and educator Elaine Brooks. She believes that people are unlikely to value things they cannot name. “One of my students told me that every time she learns the name of a plant, she feels as if she is meeting someone new. Giving a name to something is a way of knowing it.”

If we want our children to become intimately involved with their environment, the best way to do that is to “properly” introduce them to nature. Start in your backyard. Instead of talking about “the birds” use their names. (If you don’t know them get yourself a backyard bird book like Backyard Birds (Peterson Field Guides for Young Naturalists) by Jonathan Latimer or Birds, Nests & Eggs (Take-Along Guides) by Mel Boring. Start a bird watching journal. What about the trees and plants in your yard? What insects populate your yard? Helping your children discover the diversity in their own yard and learning to identify many of them by name might be the single greatest thing you can do to help your child become ecologically responsible. Names lead to intimacy…intimacy leads to caring…caring leads to action.

The other day we were at The Metro Park. We are so lucky to have this 5,000 acre park just 4 miles from the house. We went to see the egrets nesting and after hiking down to the long expansion bridge on one of the lakes, we pulled out our binoculars and watched the beautiful birds. I was with my daughter and her children. Along with the egrets we saw blue herons, a nesting swan, a northern water snake, a family of snapping turtles sunning on a log, and scores of red winged blackbirds. I enjoyed listening to my 5 year old grandson talk about his surroundings. He kept asking for the name of everything he saw. He already knows most of the local birds by name but his thirst for information is infinite. While listening to him it was apparent that he felt a sense of intimacy with the creatures and plants around him…you might say he’s becoming one with nature. To him nature is not something foreign “out there”. It is something personal, that he is involved with, and knows by name!

Over the years we have often gone one step further and have actually give proper names to things. My daughter named the weeping cherry she gave me one Mother’s Day, Julie. The boys named the matching dogwoods Barkley and Bob. My daughter’s children name their squirrels. Now, I’m willing to bet the farm that they aren’t always identifying the same squirrel…but it doesn’t matter! What matters is they feel a connection to the animals in their backyard!

We take the time to get to know the names of a people we deal with regularly. We learn the name of streets we frequent. We remember the names of delicious dishes at favorite restaurants, and we can list by name the television shows we watch every week. Learning names makes is easier to talk about things accurately. It also suggests a level of involvement. So, the next time you’re in the great outdoors with your children, take the time to meet some new friends…friends you can call by name!



  1. That One Small Square
    Submitted by Tina (not verified) on Sat, 05/31/2008 – 05:44.
    That One Small Square Backyard has been on my "list" for awhile. Might need to get it now that summer is here and we’re spending so much time outside with our new patio and play structure. Kent spent about an hour playing with the gypsy moth caterpillar that we found this morning. Just wanted to share this website, since I was sharing other Montessori sites earlier. Our teacher showed me their catalog today, and I was online browsing. Wow, they’ve got some really cool science things. She has the botany wooden puzzles on the class wish list (they suggest fulfilling something on the class wish list instead of doing "teacher gifts" at the end of the year).


    Our caterpillars arrived today, so I should get that Life Cycle of the Butterfly book!

    Submitted by Kim (not verified) on Fri, 05/23/2008 – 17:15.
    I’m so lucky, I got many of the Scholastic First Discovery books years ago when I ran the preschool. The new ones have the same info, but it is nice having the sturdy hard bounds. We have been so pleased with The Life Cycle series by Bobbie Kalman. (Kids are into worms right now so we have the Earthworm book) It doesn’t talk down to children but doesn’t overload them with too much info. And the photos and drawings keep the text very interesting. If you haven’t seen one yet, get one of the "One Small Square" books by Silver. I highly suggest the Backyard one first. The thing I love about them is how they discuss total habitats, the drawings are beautiful and they are filled with activities. I can’t believe that science is often the weakest program in many schools. It really is so easy to teach science, it’s EVERYWHERE, and it is so easy to incorporate cross curriculum ideas. Plus, children are born natural scientists, as you well know. All you really need to do is give them opportunities…then they teach us 🙂 Have fun!

    Submitted by Tina (not verified) on Fri, 05/23/2008 – 07:07.
    I might need to get the "Life Cycle of a Butterfly" from the series that Michelle mentioned. I ordered our caterpillars for our butterfly house today! That should be exciting (hopefully). Those "Let’s Read and Find Out" books look interesting. It’s hard to find a fun book that explains some of those topics well to a younger audience. We’ll have to check them out. Science books are popular around here! We also love those Scholastic First Discovery books with the transparent pages. Too bad they only have paperback versions now. The hardcover ones are quite pricey on Ebay!

    Submitted by Kim (not verified) on Thu, 05/22/2008 – 17:39.
    Went to montessoriforeveryone.com. I can see why Jack loves the books. Kids love to break things down into its smallest parts! And I agree, there are lots of things we do "instinctually" as parents, because they feel right, and we seldom give them another thought! Guess that supports "trust your instincts".

    First off…this time I wrote my blog BEFORE my trip so no excuses for me 🙂 And, I think lots of people share your mom’s view of "nature", even today. The world "out there" is full of scary things…but only a few…and not as many as the school playground, a city street or most kitchens! When working with children, but this applies to anyone, start close to home and move outward. There is a whole world of nature surrounding your house. Start by getting familiar and comfortable with that. Then "branch out" (to use a nature pun) Mostly, be filled with awe…THAT will cross over to your children faster than a cold virus. Have fun!

    Your children are a little older but what fun for you! Their level of interests in things will soon mirror your own. One great way of having your children start taking responsibility for their environment is to volunteer time, preferably as a family, at a nature center, animal shelter, or anything directly involved with making the Natural World a better place 🙂 Lead by example!

    It is fun listening to your children describe things…they try to be so descriptively correct, including names of EVERYTHING! Takes them a lot longer to tell a story but it sure exemplifies their excitement for things around them. Also, thanks for sharing the other book titles. They are all wonderful books.

    Submitted by Lisa (not verified) on Wed, 05/21/2008 – 01:21.
    You have such an interesting take on everything. Although I agree with you completely I’m not sure I would have been able to put it into exactly those words. Sounds like my kids are a bit older than most of you that post, having 3rd and 5th grader, soon to be 4th and 6th! But the same things come up all the time, the answers are just getting harder. You hear so much today about Going Green. That’s great but we need to be careful so it isn’t just a fad. I agree that the best way to make your children responsible is to make them care and they can’t care about something they don’t know about!

    Submitted by Michelle (not verified) on Wed, 05/21/2008 – 00:15.
    LOL – Whenever I work in my son’s preschool co-op I get asked… “ok so what is ___ that he has been talking about?” His vocabulary/that ability to call things by name, mixed with his slightly behind speech really makes him hard to follow at times… often some translation is needed on my part. Red Winged Blackbird is definitely more of a mouthful than ‘birdie’ but I have to agree that I think that calling nature by name does make you feel more ownership and more responsible for the creatures in nature. I find myself Googling and looking up critters all the time now… just to be sure I’m IDing them correctly. And my son has most definitely hit that stage of a 100 questions an hour. I find myself saying, “Remind me to look it up when we get home” all the time now and often he does remember.

    Some science books I really like to (beyond the ones my mom recommended – the Take Along Field Guides and One Small Square Books are AWSOME!) are the Life Cycle Series by Bobbie Kalman, some of the Gail Gibbons Books, The Let’s Read and Find Out Series and the Usborne Science Discovery Books (I like the Usborne books mainly for their internet links – we’ve found some great websites through them).
    BTW – I do sell Usborne Books if anyone is interested… http://www.GrowingWithUsborne.com


    Submitted by Sarah (not verified) on Tue, 05/20/2008 – 19:23.
    Funny story about Tim! My mom didn’t take me out in "nature" much. As a matter of fact most things outside were to be feared. Dogs might be rabid, mosquitoes carried sleeping sickness, poison ivy lurked behind every bush! So, outside involved swimming pools (I’m a very good swimmer 😉 and dinner on the patio, until mosquitoes came out. I am trying very hard not to pass my instilled fears unto my children. I certainly have them outside more than I went as a kid, but I am not very up on nature nomenclature. "Oh, that’s a pretty flower" or "Look how colorful that tree is." I am going to challenge myself to step out a little more. We don’t have any books on nature so I think I’ll start by looking at a couple that you suggested. Guess it’s time to move beyond brown bird, blue bird, red bird! And I do agree with the whole name thing. We do name things we care about and I want my kids to care about nature. Have a great week everyone and a safe Memorial Day weekend. (So, Kim, can we expect a "Too Weary" blog on Tuesday 😉

    Submitted by Tina (not verified) on Tue, 05/20/2008 – 19:15.
    Ah-ha! Here they are. This looks just like the bird one that Jack brought home last week. (He colored his to look like a robin.)


    Submitted by Tina (not verified) on Tue, 05/20/2008 – 19:07.
    Your point about naming things making us feel intimate with them is interesting and not something I had really thought about. I do this for my children when we are observing nature, but not consciously, it’s just something that I do. (Well, I try, I don’t always know the names of things, LOL!) Your point though makes me want to do it more consciously in the future. We have been having lots of fun watching the birds at our bird feeder on our deck. Thankfully, it hasn’t been much harder than goldfinch and chickadee so far. I do have a massively large bird book to help identify any new ones that might venture in.

    My son loves the nomenclature activities that he does at his Montessori school. I think this is along the same idea of what you are talking about. They make little flip books, with for example, a picture of a robin. On the cover page, he will color the whole bird and write the word "bird". Then, he will color the beak on the first page, and write the word "beak" below. Then, the next page, he will color the wing, and write the word "wing." Etc. etc. They do it for all sorts of things in nature, as well as almost anything else that you could name by its parts (parts of the body, map work, etc.). It’s a very fun and satisfying activity for the kids. He came home one day pointing at his knee and telling me that it was his patella. It was very cute.

    Hmm..I’m not positive those activities are actually called "nomenclature" activities, but in any case, this site has some good resources.

    At school, I think they use something similar to the "Parts of the Bird Definition Booklet" shown here to make their little individual stapled books. This is one of Jack’s favorite "work" activities to do at school.

  2. I LOVED THIS POST!!! I never quite thought about “nameing” things in this light. How very true. I especially loved this,

    “Helping your children discover the diversity in their own yard and learning to identify many of them by name might be the single greatest thing you can do to help your child become ecologically responsible. Names lead to intimacyu2026intimacy leads to caringu2026caring leads to action.”

    I will be quoting you in our next homeschooling newsletter. Thanks for an inspirational blog in oh so many ways.



  3. I did laugh at this post. Tim and I are exactly the same. I call everyone by their name if I can. I find it is nicer that calling people ermmmm lol Good for Tim, I think everyone should be like that, just think how nice and polite everyone would be. Like a big group of friendly happy strangers lol..

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