Will the kids be outside this summer?

Even at a young age, children can explore nature. Charlie Hong examines a fallen tree at Muir Woods.

“Whoa! It’s a turtle.” “Turtles!” “There are, like, ten turtles on that log!” I just returned from Nature Trail Day, an annual event at OH Anderson Elementary School in Mahtomedi, and the sounds of free-range fourth graders are still ringing in my ears. I was stationed near a small pond in the woods, an ideal location for teaching the children about pond life, water quality and water monitoring techniques. Using the simplest of tools – Tupperware containers and plastic spoons – we combed through samples of pond water in search of macroinvertebrates, otherwise known as little pond critters. Based on the variety of leeches, snails, waterbugs, and insect larva they found in the water, the kids gave their pond a passing grade, noting that while it could be better, the water quality was pretty good for a little pond.

As much as we hear about “nature deficit disorder,” with today’s kids spending more time inside in front of televisions and video games, I also see many great examples in our local east metro area of youth connecting with nature, learning and having fun. There are three different private, non-profit nature centers in Washington County and each offers children and adults unique opportunities to get outside. Upcoming, there is adult fly fishing (June 25, 27 and 29 at Warner Nature Center in May Twp), preschool story time “Digging in the Dirt” (June 15, at Carpenter Nature Center in Denmark Twp) and even a bison release (June 16 at the Belwin Conservancy). This weekend, May 19 and 20, Wild Wings of Oneka in Hugo will hold its third annual Minnesota Outdoor Youth Expo. Featuring activities such as geocaching, archery, scuba diving and nature walks, the event is designed to get kids and teens outside and in contact with over 60 outdoor organizations, experts and educators from the area. In addition, we have William O’Brien, Afton State Park, and seven county parks, all in our figurative backyard and all featuring excellent wildlife habitat, high-quality water resources and recreational opportunities for a variety of ages.

My favorite part of working with children in the outdoors is the wonder and excitement they bring to each new learning experience. After loudly counting the number of painted turtles in the OH Anderson pond, and noting the green heron perched on a snag, the pair of mallards floating in the water and the long-legged spider crawling down a nearby tree, the fourth-graders in Mahtomedi directed their attention to hunting for aquatic macroinvertebrates. Each new discovery, be it a lousy leech or a slimy snail, was met with squeals of delight. Their curiosity piqued, some of the students wondered what they might find if they were looking in a stream by their house or their lake up north. I explained that macroinvertebrates are essential in aquatic food chains; they provide food for waterfowl, turtles and many species of fish. The children nodded, their attention diverted once again by the turtles sunning themselves in the pond. “There goes one of the turtles,” a little boy yelled. Plop! “It swam away!”

For more information on local places to get outside this summer:

Belwin Conservancy – www.belwin.org

Carpenter Nature Center – http://carpenternaturecenter.org

Warner Nature Center – www.smm.org/warnernaturecenter

Minnesota Outdoor Youth Expo  – www.mnoutdooryouthexpo.com

Minnesota State Parks – www.dnr.state.mn.us/state_parks

Washington County Parks – www.co.washington.mn.us/parks