As a graduate from art school, and someone who was previously known for avoiding bugs at all costs, I never imagined myself as a leader in the nature-based Wildlife Explorers program. However, my perception and willingness to engage with the natural world has dramatically changed since the beginning of my employment about two and a half years ago at the Carrie Murray Nature Center, under Baltimore City Recreation and Parks. I’ll admit that the “lure” for me was the exotic carnivorous reptiles housed at our facility, however once employed, my interest and appreciation for other environmental fields grew, and has continued to do so.
Several months ago, my boss approached me about the possibility of implementing a grant this Fall through NRPA called Wildlife Explorers. It is a program that targets urban youth, and over a series of several weeks and activities, seeks to promote interest in nature. I was indeed interested, and I set off recruiting some of the third graders from the local urban elementary school. Though their school is only a short walk from the Gwynn’s Falls/Leakin Park (a heavily forested 1,216 acre city park), most of the children had never visited, and expressed high amounts of fear and discomfort about being in the woods. The first day, as we sat within the cover of a park gazebo, I asked the children to raise their hands if they felt somewhat scared of the woods and nature, and almost every hand went into the air. However, over the course of the next seven weeks, I hoped that some of the evident attitudes would start to change. And they did.
Probably the most memorable day occurred during the Chapter 4 section of the program. I somewhat modified the "Get into Insects" activity to include insect catching and temporarily collecting, in addition to the ‘observe and record’ instructions given in the workbook. During our group instructional time in the gazebo, I announced that we would be working with bugs that day, and was met by a resounding collective "ewwwwwwwww!" from the children. I briefly addressed the need for respecting ALL creatures in nature, including insects (including "how would you like it if someone said "ewwww!" about you and your friends?). This seemed to shift opinions fairly well. One child even tried to mitigate his prior comment by telling me "oh but Ms. Sharon, I meant 'ooooooooh'". Yeah, ok.
Each child was given a tennis ball container (a clear plastic cylinder air holes punched in the lid) as well as an Insects Golden Guide, paperback field guide book. They were challenged to identify what insects they were able to collect in their containers. The initial sense of hesitation indicated by the prior "ew" comment wore off almost instantly as the children dispersed into the immediate area looking for bugs under logs and within grasses. "Quiet" is not a word that I would even remotely use to describe the situation, as the kids screamed with a mixture of 90 percent excitement, and 10 percent lingering fear of bugs.
In addition to collecting and identifying the insects, I also asked the children to name their bugs, intended to promote a sense of investment and ownership. By the end of the allotted time span, most kids had at least 2 or 3 bugs in their container, with a few of the more avid collectors housing 6 or 7. To my excitement, many of the children were also utilizing the books, flipping through them looking at the large colorful illustrations trying to find one that resembled the contents of their tennis ball container.
As our session was nearing its conclusion, I announced to the children that we would be releasing our bugs in the near future, and had the kids gather around one picnic table to say a quick "farewell". I instructed them to find a nice little space, such as the edge of the woods to put their bugs back into. However I did not anticipate the level of emotional attachment that had apparently taken place within the past 35 minute time span. Not only were many of the children resistant to the idea of leaving their bugs, but in a few instances, there were tears. Much to my sense of mild panic, one little girl started the type of hyperventilating crying about having to depart from her field cricket "Mimi". I gave my best attempt at comforting her, before thankfully my assistant instructor stepped in. We explained to our student how Mimi wanted to go home to her family of crickets and see her mom and dad and play with her sisters (a little embellishment on our part), and how additionally it is important to always return nature to the state it was in previously.
I anticipated that this activity would likely be a productive and engaging one, but I had underestimated the level that the children would truly react. It was a highly meaningful day to me, in that I could see with such certainty the kids attitude change from beginning of the session's verbal "ewwwww" to the ending tears regarding the insect release. Clearly it made enough impact that I still remember "Mimi" the cricket.
I feel that this story highlights the drastic change in attitudes towards engaging with nature that the children underwent. The very first day some of the children were physically clinging to me, or holding my hand out of fear when walking down the forested road to the gazebo. By the end, they would run ahead, screaming and laughing, pointing out any berries growing on nearby shrubs. I hope that this NRPA Wildlife Explorers program will have a lasting impact on the children. That this exposure and education about the environment will have sparked a sense of interest, appreciation, and wonder. That maybe Mimi the cricket is the hook that student needed, just as feeding time for the large reptiles was for me upon my first visit to the Nature Center where I now work and love.