By Dahna Kreger, Intern Naturalist
For the River Bend naturalist staff, early November can bring either a much welcome break from long hours of wall-to-wall programming; or it can signal the beginning of a lengthy period of down-time that for some may elicit an uprising of pending doom from the gut. I feel that this primarily applies to me, because of my complete and total inability to sit still for any length of time. Nonetheless, I am excited to see what projects we will create to keep occupied when not entrenched in the few programs that we’ll be working on during the winter months…
In light of the recent change in our office atmosphere, moving from cyclical chaos and relative calm to one of more consistent calm and placidity, I have luckily been able to complete a blog post during the latter period. And perhaps because I mourn the end of fall programming, that is the subject to which it is dedicated.
Recap – here is a run-down of the programs we have completed in the last two months:
- Kindergarten: Seasons and Senses
- First Grade: Homes and Habitats
- Second Grade: Seeds of Life
- Third Grade: Nature Pyramid
- Fourth Grade: Prairie Biome
- Fifth Grade (Owatonna): Soils and Erosion
- Fifth Grade (Faribault): Aquatic and Ecosystem Research
- Sixth Grade: Decomposition
Each brought its own set of challenges, and more frequently, rewards! As a total greenhorn, I found myself plunged face-first into the fast-paced flow of fall programming at River Bend. Nervous and stressed at the onset, I quickly built my confidence as a public speaker and group manager. At least, I think I successfully managed to grow in these areas… my greatest joy of all however- other than the breadth of content and material I learned, in addition to having a fantastic opportunity to work with some wonderfully knowledgeable and exceptionally bright people- was being able to hang out with kids every day, and once again be able to see life through the fresh and curious eyes of a child. Although I don’t think I had much of a problem doing that anyway, some might argue.
I like to start with favorites, so I’ll begin with my favorite of the fall programs. I found that I had the most fun with younger kids, and I had a blast working with the kindergarteners during their “Seasons and Senses” program. For this one, the kids come to River Bend with their class during the fall, winter, and spring; each time visiting their special “kinderspots” which are small areas of either forest or prairie that the groups will track changes with over time using their senses of sight, sound, touch, hearing, and even taste (within reason!). Each group had an opportunity to visit Turtle Pond. The clever names always got the kids extremely excited, and it was so fun to see their reactions during the introduction. The spots were called: Fuzzy Bunny Boulevard, Raccoon Hollow, Spiderweb Square, and Butterfly Alley. I can’t wait for them to come back in late January!
Another program I found very enjoyable was the Fifth Grade Aquatic and Ecosystem Research. For this program, students learned how to identify and analyze the different factors that impact the health of an aquatic ecosystem and how to test for them. The students got to perform some very legitimate tests – including dissolved oxygen, turbidity, pH, and even building filters that might help clean up dirtied water. A collective favorite though was critter catching, where the students would use dip nets to capture insects and other small animals inhabiting each of the ponds where we conducted the testing. It was always a highlight to find exceptionally large water beetles in Turtle Pond, or tiny fish swimming around in the hidden ponds tucked away in Owl Valley. That one really shocked us, since no one really thought that fish could grow in such a small space with very few resources. We naturalists did encounter a rather intimidating water beetle with one of the groups – it must have had a length of about 3.5 inches, including its pincers. We kept it in a small container to show the classes coming later that afternoon, but it had escaped into the building at Trailside while we were away at lunch! I still wonder where it might be lurking…
At this point it becomes very difficult for me to choose favorites, so perhaps continuing in chronological order might be best…
Fourth grade marked the beginning of our fall programming in early September with their study of the prairie biome. The students were split up into pairs within small groups, and each pair was assigned to a square-shaped plot out in our prairie to conduct some basic scientific tests; such as temperature of soil and plant mass (both in the actual prairie and in the mowed trails), identifying plants and determining how common they are at River Bend, and finally catching insects in nets and jars to see what kinds of critters thrive in our mixed-grass prairie. Again the students tended to most enjoy the critter-catching. Sometimes, though, complete and total pandemonium would ensue whenever a bee was found and even caught in a jar… it would often become difficult to restore order after this happened, but we always managed to get everyone back on track. To achieve this, one of the naturalist staff would “dispose” of the offending bee far off into the woods, or just release it back into the air when no one was looking.
Third graders came next with their study of the Nature Pyramid. This one was very enjoyable for the children, since it too involved a lot of log and rock rolling to search for insects. The goal of this unit was to help students better understand each living thing’s place in nature, how abundant they are, and comprehension of the idea that nature is sustained through food chains such as the Nature Pyramid. My personal favorite was looking for insects in the forest – since we frequently found very large millipedes that children interpreted as freaky and cool. While they are completely safe to handle, some children opted out of that since it does feel a little funny to have a thing crawling on you that has a hundred tiny little legs, and will likely poo on your hand since it’s scared. Overall the children did very well at categorizing where each animal belonged on the pyramid, and they especially got a kick when they realized that they too belonged on there – we’re the top dog at the highest tier!
Second graders came to us next for their Seeds of Life Program. This one was always enjoyable to do – especially early on when we had lots of “poppers” and “hitchhikers” for the kids! In this unit, we introduce the kids to the idea of adaptations. That is, things that help a plant or animal survive in its habitat. We use seeds as examples of different adaptations. There are four different types of seeds: hitch-hikers stick to fur, feathers, or clothing to later fall off at a new place; droppers simply fall to the ground, however animals usually carry them to other places; poppers burst from their seed container to spread away from the plant; and flyers are carried through the air by the wind by their wings or feathery parachutes. Pretty much across the board everyone loved milkweed pods the best – finding the downy fluff scattered across the ground or still encased within the pod. Of course, there were always those few children who would pluck a whole pod right off the plant and pocket it, and maybe one of the group leaders would discover it later on, or parents much later on at home… but I never really minded this because they loved it so much; how soft and feathery they felt, and how easily they blew away in the wind! I remember loving that as a child, and even still today it brings me irrational amounts of joy.
This brings us to the concluding weeks of our fall programs, in which we had sixth graders and first graders coming to visit us! The two programs did end up overlapping just a bit, however I always appreciate a little variety in the workweek, so I didn’t mind this at all and I am sure that none of the other naturalists did either. At this point though I think we were all beginning to get a little tired, and were more or less looking forward to having a break coming up…
Beginning with sixth grade — this unit was all about decomposition, and introducing/reinforcing the concept behind and importance of using the scientific method. In this unit, the goal was to have students be able to distinguish between producers, consumers, and decomposers; identify the non-living parts of cycles in natures (air, water, sunlight, rocks), and to review a food chain/web — either theoretical or observed that incorporates all the components of a nutrient cycle. I had a total blast with this program! I had been anticipating grumpy cantankerous pre-adolescent children giving me attitude and spewing out negativity about whatever I’d try to say to them. And, I ended up with slightly cantankerous pre-adolescent children who got surprisingly excited about things like moss, lichen, and fungi. For the program, the students were split up into pairs and groups — of which we had a total of four. These included fungi, moss, lichen, middens and arthropods. Of course being the leader of the midden/arthropod group often proved to be a significant advantage when it came to keeping everyone engaged and interested in what you were doing, I found. On the first day of this unit, my group found a wolf spider and a unique species of millipede that still had a predominantly black body, but yellow and orange legs!
Finally this leaves the first graders and their homes and habitats unit. I know that I’ve said this about pretty much every program so far, but this one was really a lot of fun! For this unit, the goal was to get the children to understand that a habitat is more than just where an animal can build its home. It is also a certain area where an animal prefers to live, and can find everything that it needs to survive. An integral part of this program was reinforcing the four things that animals need to survive in their habitats – food, water, shelter, and space. We went out in groups to investigate “evidence” of an animal’s presence – we asked them, “What would the animals have left behind in their homes or habitats?” We were looking for things like tracks, scat, fur, feathers, scratch marks from claws, hollows in trees, and even bones. We did have a couple of places where we had intentionally hid animal bones – everyone really got a kick out of that! And just because the kids are so adorable, I am including a few snapshots of some of the groups who came for this program.
As I finish this write-up, I have to say that thinking about all these programs that have passed us by has made me a little sentimental… but at least the naturalist staff gets to see everyone again in the spring! And, after already halfway through the first week of no programming, I am doing well with the decreased activity levels of hectic-ness, and I have to say I think everyone else is too.
Dahna Kreger is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at email@example.com or 507-332-7151.