By Emma Walsh

The Nature Academy is focused on training a new generation of environmental leaders in sustainability, conservation, and ecological restoration. As part of the Nature Academy program, each intern writes a blog post and develops a project. The project provides an opportunity to take on responsibility in an area of interest, contribute to the goals of their team, and develop a skill or area of knowledge that can be added to the intern’s portfolio. The post may reflect the project or be a nature-related topic of personal interest to the intern.

For the second time this tour, I see a third (almost fourth) grader reach for the golden barrel cactus in front of him with curiosity and determination—ready to strike. It’s late in the tour, almost lunchtime, the arid house in the conservatory is hot and we’re all a little dehydrated. I take a breath and pause from my explanation, reminding him of the rules we have gone over multiple times: You are only allowed to touch the things that your docents touch.

“But you touched it!” he exclaims, grinning. He is neither malicious nor incorrect. I admit my mistake, apologize, and move on. The apology is not necessary, but I give it anyway, because maybe I subconsciously realize it wasn’t entirely an accident after all. Maybe I did purposely touch the golden barrel, just a little bit. Maybe, even at the age of 20, with full knowledge of how I am an example to these kids and with painful first-hand experience with cacti, I reached for it regardless… and therein lies the problem.

Cactus stuck in finger

It’s no secret that tactile interaction is important for a child’s discovery and education. The first children’s museum opened in 1899 with this very idea in mind, and by 1920 there was established research by John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Jean Piaget that put an emphasis on hands-on learning, play in education, and creativity and imagination (Mayfield, 2005).

It doesn’t take a psychology degree to realize that kids love to touch and grab things. Like these cacao beans (they smell just a little like chocolate) that we hand out on field trips to Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

If you’ve spent more than ten minutes with a 2-year-old, you know how quickly they can get ahold of something and stuff it right into their mouth. We are drawn to touch things; it is part of how our brain works and how we are taught. Touch is part of discovery, part of human evolution, part of nature itself. So why, knowing all of this, have we put such an emphasis on caution and safety, even when it gets in the way of nature discovery?

I’ll give you my personal, somewhat educated guess. First, someone else, a long long time ago, touched it, and they suffered. The double-edged sword of human existence is being aware of the past, present, and future all at once. Would we have gotten anywhere if we did not learn from the mistakes of our distant ancestors?

The risk we always run is that regardless of all our reminding, someone will touch the cactus or brush up against poison ivy. The reality is that there is nothing that can be changed about how human evolution has gone, about how children learn best, and about how plants have adaptations to protect themselves from animals (us).

Kids playing on a tour of Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Maybe the answer to this dilemma lies in the simple truth of the matter: the world can be dangerous, discovery can be dangerous, and you might get hurt. Sometimes risk must be embraced. Take Elzada Clover’s example. If she had said no to danger and discovery, she would never have rafted the Colorado River by boat in 1938 to collect desert plants for the Matthaei Botanical Gardens arid house collection or become the curator here back in 1960, as my co-intern Emily Welch wrote about in her blog post.

Not that we encourage harm or incorporate it into our programs, not that we stop emphasizing safety in lieu of a discovery free-for-all, but hey, stuff happens.

Because that’s life, and that’s the biggest discovery there is.

Emma Walsh

Emma Walsh is an upcoming junior at the University of Michigan from Lake Forest, Illinois. She is studying sociology with a sub-major in health and behavior, and a minor in history. In her free time she enjoys cooking, hiking, road trips, shopping, spending time with friends, and reading. This summer Emma is a youth education intern at Matthaei Botanical Gardens leading tours, assisting groups, and helping to promote children’s programs.


Mayfield*, M. I. (2005). Children’s museums: purposes, practices and play?. Early Child Development and Care, 175(2), 179-192.