I was helping on a school program yesterday. When I say “school program” I mean that we went into a public school and took the students on a small field trip into their own schoolyards, helping them explore the nature right outside their door. As we were walking into the woods, one of the students sidled up to me.
“What do you like about nature?” he said.
“Well, everything, I suppose,” I said. “What do you like?”
“The trees,” he said. “But not the grass.”
It was a perfect bit of nonsense. Then this boy asked me why I liked nature. Here’s the rub: I like nature because of things I had learned as a child, when I spent as much time as possible outside. I liked nature because of programs like the ones I was helping lead.
I help lead some programs, but Tanya Creamer, MassLIFT-AmeriCorps Service Learning Coordinator with Wareham Land Trust and the Buzzards Bay Coalition, leads a lot of programs. So I did what any sensible person would do: I sat down with Tanya to talk about taking kids outside. And why we like nature.
Tanya has been working with kids ranging in age from very small–toddlers, on a program called Itty Bitty Bay Explorers—to middle school students through the after school CARE (Community, Academic, Recreation, and Enrichment) program. She takes them outside, and teaches them about the habitats around them and what they can do to care for them.
“At Wareham Middle School CARE they know they have this salt marsh behind their school that leads them to the Wareham River, but they don’t have any really well great paths out there to go explore, and no really great opportunities to go out there,” Tanya said.
As educators, we get to do something special by giving the opportunity to get outside. It’s easy to assume we’re giving kids an interest in nature, but Tanya makes a good point: “I think it’s an interest they already had prior to this, but they never had the opportunity to explore it, so we gave them a safe environment and some tools to do that.”
What are those tools, exactly? Sometimes it’s nets, like when leading small children on the Itty Bitty Bay Explorers programs, where they can catch bugs in the fields of East Over Reservation in Rochester or find turtles, frogs, and other critters in the retired cranberry bogs of Douglas Westgate Conservation Area. And sometimes it’s knowledge. “They don’t have a substantial knowledge about the things we’ll find out there,” Tanya said. “So they’ll see a crab and they’ll know it’s a crab but they won’t know what type it is. But we can show them the difference between a fiddler crab and a purple marsh crab, and that’s exciting for them. Now they know if they go out to a different salt marsh they can find them and know what they are.”
Knowledge can also help children become comfortable exploring nature. “Sometimes kids are scared of what they’re finding because they don’t know what it is,” Tanya said. “Once you explain what they’re finding and what it is and that it won’t eat them or hurt them, then they’re totally fine with it.”
And Tanya can see that the impact her programs have on the children she teaches. “We’ll see them in a school setting,” she said. “But then we’ll see them when we’re doing other things in Wareham, and they’ll always come up to us with their parents, and they’ll normally just say that one thing that stood out to them from the program. And that’s always cool, because you’ll get to see what that thing they remembered was.”
Right now Tanya is working with the students at Minot Forest Elementary CARE to make signs for the trails in Minot Forest, and making those signs was the special thing one child remembered. Another remembered picking up the trash along the trails on a school program. Another has learned to identify crabs. Children from Decas Elementary learned about the water bugs and fish that live in the Weweantic River behind their school. In all these instances, it’s clear that education has helped deepen the engagement the children of Wareham have with their natural areas. Maybe someday they’ll be leading children’s programs in nature. At the very least, they’ll be able to share something they like about it: that one special thing they remembered, whether it was catching a crab, helping clean up the woods, or just a clever fact.
Community Engagement Coordinator, MassLIFT-AmeriCorps