Hey Ranger: With a child’s eyes

Written by Susanna Asema July 27, 2011 05:15 pm

Get the most out of a kid’s outdoor trek

 Belle Oliphant, 10, of Crescent City, picks up leaves during an excursion to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Submitted
Belle Oliphant, 10, of Crescent City, picks up leaves during an excursion to Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Submitted
Editor’s note: The “Hey Ranger” column written by employees of the Redwood National and State Parks will appear on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Today’s column is by Susanna Ausema.

Working at the Wolf Creek Education Center in Redwood National and State Parks provides me with a unique perspective of our parks and their resources. I have the chance to see the redwoods through the eyes of elementary school students — a perspective that frequently differs from adults.

Take, for instance, the redwood forest. An adult may pause in wonder and awe, staring up into the canopy of an especially large tree. My students are equally impressed, often adding that the trees seem “magical” and make them feel “relaxed” and “peaceful.” However, after dedicating a few moments of their attention skyward, children often begin to gaze just as intently at the ground.

Within the decomposing organic debris of the forest floor, animals such as beetles, slugs, and worms devour their next meal, returning nutrients to the soil. Discovering one of these critters in action is equally as exciting to our younger visitors as the tall trees that everyone comes to see.

Another difference in perspective can be witnessed along the parks’ rivers and streams. Adults tend to stand on bridges, admiring the flow of water beneath, and perhaps commenting on salmon populations or fishing regulations. Children’s enthusiasm far exceeds this — they cannot wait to physically experience the water, even if just squatting at stream’s edge and reaching in up to their elbows.

While the cold water may surprise them, it doesn’t hold them back from making fantastic discoveries such as a Caddisfly larva seemingly glued to a rock, a cluster of translucent amphibian eggs floating in the grasses, or — most exciting of all — a salmon fry. By the end of their visit, they’ve carefully turned over dozens of rocks and paced back and forth a dozen times, searching for just one more creature hiding in the stream.

This excitement and enthusiasm for the outdoors, so eagerly demonstrated by children, is what makes my job so fulfilling. How can you and your children experience nature to its fullest? Just jump right in!

Of course, you’ll want to be prepared with appropriate clothing and plenty of water and snacks. Then, drop by any one of the parks’ five information centers for a visitor guide, self-guided Junior Ranger activity booklet, or an updated listing of ranger-guided programs. Whatever you and your family choose to do in the parks — hike, swim, fish, bike, play in the sand, or something else — here are some tips to make the most out of your experience:

• Slow down. Instead of just glancing at the scenery, take a deeper look. Choose one particular tree and get to know it better. Are there smaller plants and animals living there that you didn’t initially notice? Do you see signs or clues (scratch marks, chewed leaves, webs) that other animals visited the tree before you? Can you find seeds, flowers, fruit, or cones produced by your chosen tree?

• Focus on feeling. Rather than trying to identify all the plants and animals by name, focus on developing a sense of appreciation for nature. Touch the bark and the leaves of different trees. Are they soft, smooth, or rough? Have your child close his/her eyes. Gently place their hands on something that has an interesting texture, like moss, and ask them to describe it. Then, with their eyes open, challenge them to identify what they were touching.

• Use your imagination. Ask children to imagine what it would be like to live for a day as their favorite animal in the parks. What would they eat? Where would they find water to drink? Would they sleep during the day or night, and where would they find shelter? Lie down on the ground and look up into the canopy of the trees; can you imagine spending a night up there in a flying squirrel’s nest?

• Be artistic. Encourage children to write a poem about, or draw a picture of, the natural object that they find most interesting. Ask what their favorite color is, and then have them search for all the variations of that color in nature. Or, try to search for the letters of the alphabet as represented by objects in nature; a round rock, for example, could represent the letter “o,” while a blade of grass swaying in the wind might look like the letter “s.”

• Leave technology behind. It’s easy to be distracted by electronic gadgets and miss out on everything else around you. Nature can be way more exciting and fun than a video game! Just give it a chance.

Fortunately, children in Del Norte, Humboldt, and surrounding counties have plenty of opportunities to learn in “outdoor classrooms.” Redwood National and State Parks is home to two outdoor schools, each of which provides standards-based programming to local school groups.

The Wolf Creek Education Center, located just north of Orick, primarily serves fourth, fifth, and sixth grade students during a three day/two night adventure. The Howland Hill Outdoor School, located near Crescent City, provides both day and overnight programs to visiting classes from preschool to sixth grade. Students and teachers take part in hands-on, standards-based field studies focused on concepts such as adaptations, habitats, water quality, and environmental stewardship.

After hiking through the old-growth redwood forest, several young visitors left these written comments: “Keep your hopes up, but your voice low” while in a wild place; “Feel nature breathe in time with you”; and “Love the world as it loves you.” It fills me with hope and inspiration to know that our children are growing intimately knowledgeable about, and compassionate toward, our planet. I feel confident that our treasured parks will be well-protected by the generation to come.

Susanna Ausema has been working as a ranger for the National Park Service for more than 10 years.