By: Mark Distler, Conservancy Supporter
Raising children in today’s information age can present a challenge to parents who attempt to balance the benefits with the downfalls of computers and instant communication. Teaching an appreciation, much less a love for nature is even more difficult when surrounded by everything being reduced to a binary code. Despite our suburban upbringings, my wife and I were lucky enough to be provided the chance to allow our innate curiosities about nature to thrive, and we have tried hard to provide our three children similar opportunities.
At the recent birthday cookout for classmates of Audrey, our 9 year old daughter, we were treated to how strong these tendencies are in all children. Audrey has attended recent similar parties for classmates that have been pleasantly accompanied by requests to make donations to charities in lieu of gifts. When offered a variety of worthy options, our daughter chose to “protect trees” by having her friends make gifts to the Nature Conservancy. While not being surprised at the choice of a child who caught her first lizard at the age of 4, just moments after I caught my first lizard at age 42, I enjoyed the reaction from both her classmates as well as their parents.
With our home in a small ‘Tree City USA’ city, most of our neighbors are exposed to nature on a daily basis, with varying degrees of detailed knowledge, but almost all with an appreciation for nature (except those who desire to pave our gravel road to keep dust down). My wife and I took the chance of Audrey’s charity choice to have a party revolving around nature. Some children were expected by their parents to absolutely love the theme while others only expected to tolerate it while having fun with their friends. Watching this group of kids’ inborn interest in nature soar past expectations was an education for us.
Instead of a bag full of party goodies which often last no more than a few days, my wife chose to provide small birdhouses to be painted as crafts, a craft which our 5 year old twins, Eric and Olivia, could do as well. (Deciding not to show anyone up, Eric chose to help keep the paint palates full rather than painting his own birdhouse). After the painting, I took a chance to start the mini-bonfire using not a match nor a flicker, but a flint creating sparks to light dried grass, a first for me. Surprising to me, this seemed to be a hit for a group of eight and nine year old girls. Some were seen sprinting barefoot across a yard full of white oak acorns to witness the event. As the fire began to grow and marshmallow-roasting coals developed, the group enjoyed a backyard picnic.
The scavenger hunt was next up on the activity list. As the guests had arrived, my wife and I advised them to be aware of what was all around them as they played because it would be used in a group activity later. The list I created was four pages of pictures of different species of tree leaves (13 different ones), wildflowers, nuts and birds.
Teams of two were paired in an attempt to have some knowledge of nature spread around. Cautions were given to avoid the brush and poison ivy, given all items were easily found in our 2 acre backyard habitat. Anyone having difficulty were instructed to ask an adult for help at anytime. Bird pictures had been placed in Ziploc bags in areas noted by clues on the pages consistent with their natural locations in nature, including pictures of a red-shouldered hawk placed at the base of the shagbark hickory which served as a nesting site for such a fledgling hawk which appeared on the playset on Audrey’s 1st birthday.
I anticipated largely a receptive crowd, but what we got was more unanimous than that. The girls could not wait to sneak peaks at the pictures as they were distributed. Once the word was given, five pairs of girls shot off in every direction, criss-crossing the yard picking leaves, grabbing hickory nuts and acorns, selecting which Black-eyed Susan to pick. Olivia, my five year old girl, stuck by my side as we lazily went around doing the same thing. Eric chose to sit this one, just shyly watching all of the activities
Prizes were to be awarded in the order of finish, but there seemed to be no jealousy of those who seemed close to finishing. There was just laughter and curiosity to what was around them. Occasional questions were asked, especially about the hackberry, sycamore, and red maple, but I was amazed at their ability to find these items with little help.
As the teams ‘doing the field work’ finished their duties and made their selections from nature puzzles or pamphlets identifying birds, the last team asked me the final few questions. Their demeanor was calm and curious, not disappointment in finishing last. I took the time to show them the sweet gum leaf, had them crumple them up and check the aroma. Their eyes got as big as saucers as they discovered the leaves smelled quite sweet (though apparently the name comes from the taste of the sap). The final few items were greeted with almost the same enthusiasm, then the last item chosen.
As the sun was sinking through the trees, it was time for s’mores around the campfire. I made some unsuccessful attempts to call a great-horned owl that in recent weeks had been heard in neighboring woods. In fact, the scavenger-hunt picture for this owl was placed on a stump close to the fire pit, our kids having learned to call owls while sitting around similar fire pits. ‘Happy Birthday’ was sung to Audrey as a candle bearing a remarkable resemblance to a marshmallow burned on a skewer. Without a harmonica, we were treated by a flute-a-phone accompaniment by a good friend of Audrey’s. The singing done, the s’mores were gone almost instantly.
As parents then began filtering back to our house to pick up their kids, some were overheard saying “Is it 9 o’clock already?” or “Do I have to go now?” Soon our family was again alone, with exhausted kids heading off to bed.
My wife, her mom, and I then took the opportunity to settle back around the fire for a cool, quiet evening under the clear skies. I thought I heard a far off owl calling between our discussions. My first attempt to answer was immediately greeted by a distant call. As I repeatedly gave my attempt to call the owl, he (I am by no means an expert on owls, but the call did sound a little lower pitched) continued to answer, each time a little louder as he moved closer. Suddenly, above the overhead branches, an outline of a large bird glided silently to a tree just yards away. He moved to another tree, then to another, apparently trying to figure if the noise he was hearing was coming from this large thing next to this fire. Finally after conversing for a few minutes, he gave up on us and moved on.
As we finally reflected on Audrey’s party, my wife and I came away more aware of children’s ability to appreciate nature when given the chance, and giving us more hope for a continuing supply of individuals entering the conservation effort. One definite result of the evening: there will be one less acre for future generations to worry about because of a choice of a single nine year old and the contributions of her friends.