Lessons from nature illuminated through art
Mona Enquist-Johnston thinks that every lesson from nature can be more easily brought home through art - by adding a song, a dance, a puppet show, or a story. A naturalist by profession, Mrs. Johnston uses everything from shadow puppets and storytelling to sign language to ''extend the lessons,'' as she puts it.
An energetic woman herself, Mrs. Johnston believes in transforming the wiggles and squirms of the chidren she guides through a Fairfax County, Va., nature center into teaching tools. ''Movement can be used to solve problems,'' she explains.
''Try making your kids into saplings,'' she suggests, ''and then crowd them together and ask, 'What happens when some of you block the sun?' Or put the 'trees' next to a 'sidewalk' and ask what happens when their roots grow.''
Making an asset out of children's lively imaginations, Mrs. Johnston recommends other ways to bring art to nature: Music
* Nature instruments. Using tappers (beating twigs on bark or covered coffee cans), scrapers (two corn cobs, two pine cones, or a stick drawn across another notched stick), and shakers (elephant ear bean pods; cups or film canisters filled with salt, corn, or rice; or corn husks and grasses), you can sing: If you're happy and you know it, tap a tune. If you're happy and you know it, tap a tune. If you're happy and you know it, Then your tune will surely show it, If you're happy and you know it, tap a tune.
Vary the song by playing, If you're happy and you know it, scrape a tune (shake a tune, play a tune).
* High/Low, Loud/Soft, Fast/Slow. Find sounds in nature that emulate all these qualities, and have the children imitate them with their voices or instruments. Some animals have more than one quality, as Mrs. Johnston points out: ''A cricket chirps quickly in the summer, but in the winter you can tell the temperature by his chirps. Count the number of times he chirps in 14 seconds , and add 40 to that number. That should give you the degrees in Fahrenheit where the cricket is.''
These qualities are also found in movement. Find and imitate fast or slow animals, and so on.
* Fable noises. Pick one of Aesop's fables (or any short animal story) and have the children use their instruments to make the sounds of the story. Snow might be corn husks shaking; a mouse gnawing could be two pine cones scraped together. Movement
* Food chain. Explain the food chain by assigning roles to the children (one might be a frog, another a hawk). Use movement to show what happens when the chain gets unbalanced - too many hawks, or too many frogs.
* Using a book of nature poems, have the children work in teams to make up a dance: Fuzzy, wuzzy, creepy, crawly Caterpillar funny, You will be a butterfly When the days are sunny.
Two books to try for this: Isabel Wilmer's ''The Poetry Troupe'' (Charles Scribner's Sons) and Leonard Clark's ''Drums and Trumpets'' (The Bodley Head, 1962). Stories
* Props and flannelboards. For a program on seeds, you might get Ruth Krauss's ''The Carrot Seed'' and use a rolled newspaper to illustrate the growing plant (pulling up the layers of newspaper from the inside). Or you can use a simple flannelboard (made by covering an old tray with a baby's receiving blanket) and felt cutouts to show a nature story like Leo Lionni's ''Fish is Fish,'' which shows the life cycle of a frog.
* Puppets. ''Children find it easier to answer questions through a puppet,'' Mrs. Johnston believes. Using even the simplest type (an old sock with felt eyes will do), the child can take on the character of the animal you're trying to explain, and come to his defense. Ask him what he eats, where he sleeps, and why his home is important. ''I once suggested that we put a parking lot over the wetlands to a bunch of duck puppets, and had them pleading and begging me not to do it,'' says Mrs. Johnston.
* Pourquoi tales. ''Every ethnic group has these, and it's kind of fun to go back and look up yours. They explain nature,'' Mrs. Johnston says, ''why the rabbit has a short tail, why the possum sleeps upside down, how the leopard got his spots.''
Mrs. Johnston suggests telling one or two of these to the children and then asking them to make up one of their own. You might provide props - stuffed animals, puppets, instruments, or costumes - to make it easier.
Pourquoi tales can be found in any Mother West Wind collection, the stories of Rudyard Kipling, or a book like Maria Leach's ''How the People Sang the Mountains Up'' (Viking Press, 1967).
* Sky tales. ''There are a lot of soap operas in the sky,'' says Mrs. Johnston, who feels that knowing a few of the constellation stories helps children to tell the stars apart. Books like Roy A. Gallant's ''The Constellations'' (Four Winds Press, 1979) or Natalie Belting's ''The Moon is a Crystal Ball'' (Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1952) can get you started on this.