By Eileen Berger Indian Trail Master Naturalist
As Master Naturalists, a major part of our volunteer service is education about nature and the plants and animals in our particular part of Texas. Our Growing Up Wild curriculum, part of the Project Wild K-12, not only has lessons for younger children, but also gives the adults something to think about. This year we are working with 10 children of varying ages at Pettigrew Academy, a Montessori school in Waxahachie.
One of the first lessons in the book deals with attitudes about particular animals. From our realistic animal models, I selected 20 animals including a fly, spider, cockroach, bear, hippopotamus, giraffe, horse, sheep, and other domestic and wild land and aquatic animals. We looked at each one and then showed by thumbs up, thumbs down, or flat hand, how the children felt about each animal. As we progressed through the animals, we charted our responses on poster board. I recorded girls’ responses in red and boys’ in blue. We then talked about why we felt the way we do. Could it be a “guy thing” to not be as positive about the baby animals? Could it be a “girl thing” to not like the snake, scorpion, or other creepy creatures? Might we feel a certain way because our parents like or dislike the animal? Then we discussed each animal’s purpose or niche in nature, such as vultures as “garbage men”. Hopefully, having discussed their feelings about certain animals led to a new appreciation about some of nature’s less popular but necessary creatures.
Another popular lesson involves deciding what constitutes a “wild” animal as opposed to a “not wild” one. The definition that we use for wild is that the animal does not need help from humans to supply the four basic needs: food, water, shelter, and space. We discuss the term “tame” but remind students that using tame in reference to animals could be dangerous, because even animals that we consider to be tame can cause us harm. Every child can give examples of the cat who scratched them or the dog that nipped them. Older ones can talk about the cow or horse that knocked them down at Grandma’s house, or the goose that chased them. We then cut out pictures of animals and created a poster with the titles Wild and Not Wild, where we glued the pictures. Not surprisingly, several children had some trouble deciding where to place some animals, because of overlapping tendencies. Rabbits can be kept as pets, as can horses, but there are also “wild” rabbits and horses. Again, they see that this topic is not as cut and dried as it first appears.
A third popular lesson involves tracking. First we ask the children how they could know that an animal has been there without seeing the animal? With some encouragement they decide that among others, finding animal tracks could tell them not only that an animal has been there, but what kind of animal, how long ago, how heavy the animal, and even if it was running or walking or crawling. We also discussed finding holes or tunnels dug in the soil, the presence of “scat” or droppings, scratches on trees or wood, holes in trees, mounds of soil, bird nests or feathers, and bits of fur caught on briars or thorns. For this lesson, a hike around the school’s campus miraculously provided examples of almost all the indicators. We even saw a turkey vulture exploring someone’s torn-open trash sack, which we had discussed in a former lesson.
Nature is everywhere, in cities or rural areas. Children need to learn early in life that we as humans are the stewards of our environment, and the Growing Up Wild curriculum helps with those important lessons.