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Encouraging a Generation of Muddy Nature Lovers

Last weekend, TMPF hosted the third Junior Naturalist Program at Evan’s Canyon’s Nature Trail. On the second Saturday of the month, we meet families with students of all ages in different parks and go on a lil’ one mile hike, allowing for student-led discovery and exploration. I make lesson plans and prepare activities so that we can loosely focus on a topic for a hike, but mostly we follow what the students are interested in. (Lesson plans are more guidelines than actual rules, anyway…)

For this last program, we had a particularly fantastic community response: about 135 people (parents, grandparents, children) came out to learn about the natural world in their own backyard. It was incredible, especially so since the first two programs attracted about 20 people in total. We split the group into Younger-than-8-years-old-Kids and Older-than-8-years-old-Kids. I hiked with the younger group, or, in proper scientific terms, the itty-bitties.

The lesson was focused on environmental stewardship and keeping the earth healthy. For the group of about 36 kiddos I had, we focused mostly on using our senses to discover nature. I gave the students paint color chips and challenged them to find the funky pinks, purples, yellows (and more!) somewhere along our hike. I taught a few kids how to stealth walk and sneak up on some white-crowned sparrows in the sagebrush, why the soil was an orange hue, and how to tell the differences between lichen and moss. Really, we talked about their questions and they came up with the right answers. It was excellent.

At the end of the hike, we stopped at the Basque Monument and did an activity about watersheds and pollution. We basically poured cooking supplies into a pitcher of water to represent a watershed with potential pollution hazards. We added salt-n-pepper pesticides, sweet and sour sauce toxic sludge, and bits of kale and berries as compost. At the end, we had a discussion about how to stop pollution from happening. It was as wonderful, honest, and inventive as discussions I’ve led with 5th graders. I was very impressed and extremely grateful for such a response.

But the most amazing part of the day for me, apart from the 70+ Junior Naturalists and the absolutely beautiful weather, was the mud.

We hiked the Nature Trail, which goes around a riparian area of the Highland Ditch. Natural mud factory right there. I was so worried the Junior Naturalists (and parents) would be unhappy or upset about the muddy trails, but I heard no complaints. (In fact, the lil’ one walking with me—we’ll call her Chrysanthemum—was very interested in the way her feet sunk in the mud and why it was so muddy. It was her favorite part.) Even when we returned to the Basque Monument for the demonstration, the kiddos had no qualms sitting on the somewhat muddy ground to pour vegetable oil into a pitcher of water.

We were covered in mud and sunshine, smelled like dirt, and were terribly happy about all of it. (Which reminds me of my favorite Margaret Atwood quote from her collection, Bluebeard’s Egg: “In the spring, by the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” Don’t worry, Maggie, we totally got you.)

I am hopeful that future Junior Naturalist Programs will be as successful and enjoyable as this one. It is such a fantastic experience to get kids outside and excited about the natural world hiding in their own backyard. And if at the end of the day, kids are more comfortable encountering nature and that troublesome pile of dirt or less than ideal weather, I will feel as though I’ve done my job. (Cue warm, fuzzy feelings.)

As you head into the weekend, dear readers, don’t avoid that mud puddle. Jump in it, and keep that sense of wonder.

Happy trails ‘n’ quails!


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