One of the most satisfying things about my job as an environmental educator is the opportunity to introduce kids of all ages to new outdoor experiences – from observing animals in the wild, to learning strange and interesting facts about familiar plants or animals, to actually getting to touch a “scary” animal like one of our educational snakes, watching that moment of discovery and excitement happen is something I treasure.
Preschool children are some of the most fascinating kids to watch interact with nature. Nearly everything is brand new to them, and they are thrilled by everything! Take a preschooler outside for a bug hunt and you’ll find yourself sharing their fascination with watching a roly poly (also called a pillbug, sowbug, or doodle bug) roll and unroll (a process called “conglobation”). You might also find yourself holding a collection of 40 or 50 roly polies, but that’s part of the entertainment. Taking a walk around the KWEC nature trail is a big adventure for these small kids, there’s so much to see and so many chances to learn! I’ve had some fun conversations with preschoolers as we tried to understand where the animal that left that footprint might have gone, or why that bird built its nest so high in the tree where we couldn’t see inside.
It’s not just preschoolers that are constantly absorbing new information about nature. Elementary age kids are eager to see the plants and animals they’ve learned about in the classroom “for real” at the KWEC and Cheyenne Bottoms. It’s one thing to learn about how flowers work and what pollinators are for, but getting outside with a butterfly net to catch and examine those pollinators up close takes their education to the next level.
Elementary school is usually the most interesting age to introduce kids to animals like snakes – many times, the kids have picked up some of their elders’ phobias of snakes, and will loudly announce that they will not be touching that slimy, gross, dangerous creature. Almost every time though, after a short talk about some of the interesting facts about snakes (such as the fact that snakes don’t have eyelids, or that they smell with their tongues) a child’s curiosity overcomes their hesitations. I love watching the look on their faces as they hesitantly reach out to touch the snake and realize that it actually feels pretty neat, and isn’t slimy at all! Overcoming a small fear in a safe setting can really help a kid out in their future interactions with the world.
Too often, older students get left out of these kinds of explorations. Classroom time can be so focused on preparation for the next big official test, and budgets are so tight, that finding the time and money for outdoor exploration can seem next to impossible. When the opportunity to get outdoors and explore is offered, though, some amazing things can happen. I once worked with a teacher to challenge her middle school students to explore the KWEC nature trail and create shelters from what they found there. The students were divided into teams, and watching the creativity, teamwork, and perseverance as each team worked to create a shelter was incredible. The students wanted to know everything about the space where they were constructing their shelters – what is that plant, what kind of animals do you see here, how you can tell where the wind will come from – that I had hard time keeping up with them! They were so proud of what they had created, even students who had initially been unsure about the idea of spending an entire morning outside in the trees and grass.
If you have children of any age in your life, I encourage you to make an effort to take them outside! Whether it’s to the KWEC, a local park, or your own backyard, the outdoors has so much to offer. Take a family walk and count how many different kinds of trees or flowers you can find, count bugs, watch a bird’s nest for a few weeks and enjoy the sight of baby birds learning to fly – the simple experience of interacting with nature is out there to enjoy!