Since NRPA launched the Wildlife Explorers program in November, I’ve heard from many excited agencies interested in introducing a nature discovery program to their community but unsure of how to begin. Insufficient staff, resources, and lack-of-prior experience with outdoor programming make the idea seem daunting.
NRPA’s Wildlife Explorers program aims to make it easy for park and recreation professionals to introduce nature discovery activities into their out-of-school time programming. By providing a framework with activities and training for program leaders, it is designed to be easily implemented by anyone in any outdoor setting. Though leaders don’t need specific outdoor knowledge or experience, they can incorporate certain elements to make the program more successful.
Here are some easy tips for agencies and leaders to follow when implementing the program:
1. Collaborate with community partners to enhance the experience with additional programming.
Each community has their own set of unique resources and organizations/individuals to collaborate with. Involving local experts not only enhances the experience for the kids, but can also open the door for potential future partnerships. Local naturalists, gardeners and biologists can be great resources and guest speakers. Look for local clubs or Master Naturalist/Master Gardener programs active in your community. Wildlife rescue centers, nature centers and conservation NGOs such as the Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy, may be able to provide specific information about wildlife in your area. Other entities in the local government (such as the Department of Environmental Services) may also be a helpful resource for information and guest speakers as would students and professors from local universities.
For example, New Bedford Parks Recreation & Beaches piloted the Wildlife Explorers program in their community and they involved a variety of organizations - Mad Science who gave a presentation about weather, The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth which organized a field trip for the kids to meet Jane Goodall, and a local entomologist who spoke to the kids about insects.
2. Don't worry about knowing all the answers.
It can be intimidating to teach a subject you’re not familiar with. Leaders can use Wildlife Explorers as an opportunity to develop children’s imagination. For example, let kids name an insect based on its appearance/physical characteristics, rather than its scientific name. Leaders can also identify opportunities to find answers to questions together by utilizing books or the internet (although time on the computer should be limited). Lastly, leaders can encourage the kids to research their questions at home with their family, which provides a great way for kids to engage with their families on an environmental topic.
3. Don’t rely too heavily on the workbook.
The workbook was designed to be used as a guide — providing themes, structure and activities. However, leaders should focus on nature discovery rather than too much writing to avoid having the program feel like school. The Wildlife Explorers program is most successful when the leaders encourage active, meaningful, hands-on exploration and observation in the outdoors.
4. Introduce innovative tools.
Kids love using tools! Some of the tools we recommend incorporating into the program are magnifying glasses, compasses, thermometers and binoculars, but many other tools can be included to enhance the experience.
The leader of the program at the Carrie Murray Nature Center in Baltimore introduced kids to a catch and release bug vacuum (collects the insects in a clear tube) so they could get a close look at insects. The leader instructed the kids to catch an insect and try to identify it using a field guide. The kids responded with a resounding “ewwwwwww!” and were very hesitant to collect bugs. After some convincing, the kids used the vacuum to collect insects and observe them. When the leader instructed them to release their insects, she was surprised by their reaction. What started out as disgust for the insects evolved into fondness for them. Some of the children were upset to the point of tears for having to release the insects they had collected. Using tools to create up-close encounters with nature, especially in one's own backyard, can be very powerful and can encourage kids to see their surroundings in a new way.
5. Give kids mementos from the program.
A wonderful way to memorialize the program for kids is to provide them with a small memento on the last day of the program. At the Carrie Murray Nature Center the leader gave each child a framed photograph of themselves in nature and a mounted leaf that they handpicked on the first day of the program. The kids and parents were thrilled to have these memories from the program to take home with them. Another idea is to work with kids on upcycling projects to benefit wildlife. For example, you could use milk jugs or other discarded objects to create a bird house, bird feeder, bug hotel, or planter. Many easy project ideas can be found online.
6. Finally, allow yourself to explore and get excited about nature!
You don’t have to love everything about nature or the outdoors, but when you get excited, the kids will get excited. The best way to prepare yourself for leading a nature discovery program is to go outside alone and discover nature in areas that you might normally walk past. You may choose to explore a field, a patch of wildflowers or a single blade of grass, but it’s important to take a moment to slow down and zoom in to study the nature that’s already around you.
One of the program leaders in San Jose Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services who piloted the program said she knew very little about wildlife before implementing the program. She used it as an opportunity, however, to educate herself by spending time outside, reading field guides and researching on the internet. While visiting San Jose, it was clear that her contagious excitement about the new things she was learning was greatly enhancing the experience for the kids.
The Wildlife Explorers workbook and leader’s guide are available for download on NRPA’s website.
Serda Ozbenian is NRPA’s Conservation Program Manager.