by Bobbie Snead
Straub Environmental Learning Center
he male osprey swoops down to join his mate on the enormous stick nest in Minto Brown Park. Sixty yards away, the third graders from a local elementary school gasp and clap in delight. I’ve taught them about ospreys in their classroom and now they’re getting to see the real thing. They are more excited than if they’d been on an African safari. This moment is my passion.
I love nature. I have been a dedicated naturalist since childhood. I’ve tromped on trails on three continents to see all that nature has to offer. I’ve watched a chamois sprint straight up a rocky cliff in the Swiss Alps, seen the gleaming eyes of a cayman as it swam across the darkened waters of an Amazon tributary, and observed wolves casually trotting along a stream in the Canadian Rockies. I’ve spent more hours searching for owls in Oregon’s forests than I care to admit. But my greatest thrill is to help a child discover the differences between an American robin and a scrub jay in Salem’s own Bush Park.
Teaching kids about nature is my mission in life. I do this work for a simple reason. Nature needs advocates. Actually, nature needs an army of defenders. What better recruits are there than the bright and enthusiastic children of Salem/Keizer?
I work in the City of Salem’s Youth Environmental Education Program. This program sends me from school to school teaching kids and their teachers about Oregon’s native species. With up to 15,000 student contacts per year, my schedule is packed. I also coordinate the children’s education programs at the Straub Environmental Learning Center. After-school programs, summer camps, family nature nights and weekend retreats keep me busy there.
Over the years I have developed my own framework for teaching kids about nature. These principles guide my educational efforts. I share them in the hope that teachers, parents and youth leaders will join me in raising Salem’s next generation of dedicated naturalists. Nature needs us.
1. Respect. Always model respect for nature. Even the simple act of releasing a spider outside instead of squashing it will speak volumes to kids about respecting all living things.
2. Speak respectfully to children and have the expectation that they will always be respectful of you.
3. Listening. Expect your group to pay attention to you. If they don’t, stop and wait until they do. Speak in a low, calming voice and make your message so compelling that they want to hear every word.
4. Personalize it. Share your personal experiences in nature, even if it’s just about the time you dropped your binoculars in a mud puddle or got caught in a downpour. Kids love true stories and they will remember them.
5. Show your passion. Be animated, smile, use gestures, be humorous. Show them how much you love nature with the way you make your presentation.
6. Use words thoughtfully. When conveying information, use the correct scientific terminology. But don’t forget to use words like awesome, exciting and amazing.
7. Teach kids about local plants and animals. I’ve discovered that children know a lot about far away animals like cheetahs, penguins and other Discovery Channel favorites, but they know nothing about the wild creatures in their own neighborhood. True stewardship starts with protecting that which is close at hand.
8. Go outside. Spend time outdoors yourself and take children outside. Move away from the virtual world and into the real world. Nature is just waiting to be explored. Make nature your passion and it will become our children’s passion.
Bobbie Snead of Keizer is a naturalist who works in the City of Salem’s Youth Environmental Education Program. She also coordinates the children’s education programs for the Straub Environmental Learning Center. She is a children’s book author who has co-written two books, “Owl Grove,” and “A Pika’s Place.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.