This article was written by recent summer intern Rose Neumeyer
I have had the pleasure of working at Woodland Dunes for nearly 7 months now. As my extended internship comes to an end I have been reflecting on my time spent here and the various projects that I have worked on.
Some of the summer projects that I worked on involved creating learning materials derived from nature for the Little Wings area. I created story stones and wood blocks that are currently available for creative use at the Nature Center.
The story stones that I created are made from small rocks which I adorned with painted pictures and designs so that they can be organized in various ways to create stories inspired by images of nature. These stones are kept in the indoor Little Wings space to encourage small visitors to play with them beside their adults and hopefully inspire some creative discussion about animals and nature.
The wooden blocks I created were all made out of tree limbs that were already fallen from the preserve or intentionally cut down for other reasons. I really enjoyed using materials that were sourced from the preserve.
When I started my internship in winter, and through the early summer, I assisted with the outdoor educational programs for school age children. I enjoyed many walks through the forest and wetlands learning and teaching simultaneously. These programs taught about the unique background and history of the landscape and the importance of the ecosystems that are present because of that. Some programs discussed the amphibians and trees that can be found within these ecosystems and what components make up an ecosystem. I helped kids learn to identify invertebrates that can be found in pond water and why it is important to keep our waterways clean. I really enjoyed being a part of programs that encourage children to get outdoors and pay attention to the world around them.
I think it is important to get kids outside and expose them to nature and let them explore. As a mother of three, I know that it can become more difficult as children get older to convince them of the importance of time away from indoor convenience and distance from their phone, TV, and other screens. My oldest child is going to be thirteen this year. She used to love collecting worms and playing in the dirt. I used to have to drag her in from the outdoors when it was time to settle in for the night. The past few years however, she prefers to stay indoors drawing, reading, and listening to music, which are not activities to necessarily be discouraged. But I do reminisce about the days when she would toss her shoes aside, play barefoot, and complain when I told her it was time to come in the house.
Recently for my birthday, she came along on a nature walk with me and the family. She kept her complaints to a minimum because she was trying her best to be kind and do what I wanted to do on my birthday. I tend to carry my camera with me most of the time when I am outside, and this day was no exception. When she asked me if she could use my camera to take a photo of a caterpillar, I hesitated (for the fear of missing an opportunity if it wasn’t around MY neck). But then I thought about it and realized that maybe, this was an opportunity to let her engage with nature on her own terms. So, I handed over my camera with a slight bit of trepidation (the caterpillar was near a pond and I didn’t want my camera to end up getting dropped in). With camera in hand, she all of a sudden became enthralled in the beauty of nature around her. She took some pictures that at first I thought were a little silly (like ten angles of a slug and the bark of a tree), but just when I was about to say something critical of her photo subject choice, I decided that I would instead appreciate the fact that she was taking a second to enjoy the beauty of nature and demonstrate curiosity about what she was noticing. Looking back I realize that she rarely complained about the steepness of the hills, the mosquitoes, the heat or humidity, or the fact that we got temporarily lost on an unfamiliar trail. She was too busy actually enjoying her time outside! When I got home and looked at those pictures, I realized that the multiple angles of the slug and the tree bark were actually pretty amazing…through her eyes.
As important as it is to get kids outside, I think it is just as important to let them explore in their own unique way. As parent and role model I remind myself; never stop looking for ways to inspire children, and don’t be afraid to notice and admit that in the process, sometimes they are inspirational themselves.
This “let children lead the way” type of approach is one that I have noticed is engrained in the educational programs at Woodland Dunes. I admire the flexibility and adaptability in the educational programs and I think it makes humble sense to consider that while we are attempting to teach and inspire, that we ourselves, may actually learn just as much in the process, if we allow ourselves that opportunity.
Sometimes learning opportunities arise unexpectedly with children and especially when nature is your classroom. Taking opportunities as they arise is imperative for success. Children learn more when they care more; and they will more likely care more if they feel a sense of independence and leadership about their experience and their education.