by Laura Childers, Environmental Education Director, SRT
The school bus squeaks to a halt, and a class of fifth grade students hesitantly piles off, looking around shyly at the vast expanse of meadows and woodlands surrounding them. I can sense that most of them have rarely left the agricultural landscape of Selma, their home town, and are slightly nervous about exploring this mythical “Nature” that they’ve heard so much about from the Discovery Channel. The students divide into small clusters of friends and giggle nervously about the field trip that’s just begun, speculating quietly about whether or not anacondas, tigers, and Big Foot are lurking in the darkness beneath the trees.
Before they know it, the kids are divided into two separate groups and will not be seeing each other again until lunch time. Volunteer Naturalist Steve Ny leads one group of students and heads straight for the Sycamore Trail, a favorite hiking trail at the preserve. I take leadership of the second group, and away we go!
My eyes open wide, and I whisper urgently to the kids, “Okay guys, the first thing that we are going to do today is look at animal bones!”
At first, their expressions morph into affected adult behavior, namely feigned boredom, cartoonish revulsion, and — underneath it all — the pure, child-like curiosity that fifth graders ultimately cannot suppress in themselves, though they would like to think they’re already grown up (and thank goodness they are not!).
If there is anything I have learned about children through my position as the Education Director, it’s that they love the macabre. Learning about the dialectic between life and death in nature, the cycle connecting all things, is an essential part of not only learning about how nature works but also learning about life itself.
We gently handle the bones of real elk, wild hogs, cows, coyotes, and foxes, turning them over and over in our hands to see that, yes, that is where the eyes went, that is where its ears were. I ask them, “Why do you think its teeth are shaped the way they are? Why are its eyes where they are on its head?” It’s a game of exploration, building familiarity with wild animals by handling them in a way they never could otherwise. We feel the snakeskin, wondering about what it would be like to have to change your skin and not just your clothes when you grow bigger. It allows the children to relate to the creatures who share our world with us.
By this time, the masks of adulthood they wore at the beginning of the field trip have fallen away. The kids squeal every time they see a squirrel pop out of its borrow or a bird fly overhead. We rally together and go search for insects, the tiny creatures that manage to dwell, mysteriously, in nothing but a parched, grassy field. We wonder at how the grasshopper’s shell matches the color of the grass so well; even his eyes are a grassy brown.
The woods still loom large in the eyes of the children, and they question me repeatedly if we are going to explore them during our hike. I tell them that we are going on an adventure into the forest, the wildlands of Visalia, and that we must stick together to learn about everything hidden within it. The kids grow silent when I tell them that if we are quiet, we may see some of the shyest animals of all — the coyote, fox, or deer.
Together, we creep along trails veiled by grapevines and valley oak canopies, green light filtering through to the forest floor. Lizards dart across our path, and lady bugs fly around us, sometimes landing on a lucky student. We hear the acorn woodpecker starting his summer storage of acorns in the stag trees and see apple-colored galls filled with tiny, sting-less wasp sprouting from the branches. The kids explore vine caves and tunnels, climb a sprawling sycamore tree, and even swing from a real grapevine just like George of the Jungle, the kids’ version of Tarzan.
Exploration is the key element of scientific discovery and learning, and the urge to explore is cultivated during childhood. Benjamin Franklin spent his youth wandering the woods of New England. Jane Goodall spent her childhood climbing trees in England with her trusty dog as her only companion. Would Benjamin Franklin ever have discovered electricity if he hadn’t learned the thrill of exploration as a child? Would Jane Goodall have dared to enter the jungles of Africa if she hadn’t spent years walking through forests alone? Personally, I doubt it.
I believe that the urge to explore is the most valuable thing we can give a child. One of the best places to teach them that is in nature because there are endless possibilities for discovery.
This spring, thirteen naturalists taught over seven hundred children how to explore and discover in the natural world. They are incredibly valuable to this community and the development of our next generation of leaders.
SPECIAL THANKS TO NATURALISTS:
You all are incredible, and thank you so much for teaching kids about nature this Spring.
THANKS TO OUR GENEROUS FUNDERS:
Southern California Edison
If you are interested in sharing your love of the great outdoors with youth, please contact Laura Childers to set up a training date at (559) 738-0211 x103.