The Fergus Falls Fish & Game Club was very much involved in the early discussions, planning and activities that ultimately resulted in what we know of today as the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center. Instilling a life-long interest in the joys and wonders that our outdoors has to offer is key to the PWLC programming. What follows is an example of the daily activity that our 4th & 5th graders experience while spending an afternoon on the prairie.
So... I poked it with a stick
By Matt Connor, past Director of the Prairie Wetlands Learning Center
Recently I taught a program to a 4th grade class for Earth Day. We learned about the founder of Earth Day Gaylord Nelson and how this event has improved how we care for the Earth and its resources. The lesson started with a poem about the Earth, we looked at pictures from the first 1970 Earth Day and went outside with journals to think about our own contributions towards the planet.
I led the students to a willow tree that had been recently occupied by hairy woodpeckers, redpolls and juncos. The presence of wildlife would give the students some immediate success with their journals and they could list the birds under Earth Creatures and perhaps work on a sketch. The birds cooperated and after about ten minutes, the students’ attention began to waver. I did a cursory inspection of the journals and saw most had recorded some of the birds and few had completed a sketch.
I gave a quiet whistle and the group knew this was the signal to form in a circle. I took out weather equipment and gave the group the wind speed, temperature, and cloud types. After we recorded the data, I asked the group if anyone had started on the “I make a difference” sentence. Nobody had. In fact, when I asked the question, most of the group broke eye contact and looked at the ground. I realized that asking a 4th grader how they know they make a difference for the Earth is a bit too daunting of a question. After all, what had I done at age 11 to make a difference for the Earth?
“Time to search for joy” I thought. I looked around and saw a large bur oak tree and said to the group, “let’s go hold that tree up!” With very little instruction, I walked to the tree and sat down with my back against it. The students followed and did the same. As we sat looking in different directions I watched the student next to me pick up a stick and start poking a rock with it. It made me smile as I thought about a story my own children had told me at the supper table the night before. The student caught a glimpse of me looking at him and put the stick down in a sheepish manner as if caught in the act of being a kid. “You know, watching you with that stick reminded me of something my children did yesterday.” The boy cocked his head in a curious manner and I asked the group if they wanted to hear a stick poking story. The group all agreed and seemed excited to listen.
I described how my children (age 7 and 8) were enthralled by the hundreds of robins that were flying around our house and landing in the trees in our yard. They stated they were going on a bird hunt and armed with sticks, went outside to stalk robins. I was certain that no robins would fall prey to the business end of an 7 and 8 year olds stick, so I wished them luck and told them to have fun knowing the birds were perfectly safe. For the next couple hours, my wife and I would catch a glimpse of our son or daughter running by the window or hear the excited screams as they “stalked” the birds.
Later that night at the dinner table I asked for the robin expedition report. Both of my children started talking excitedly at the same time about the headless bird they found! “Everything on that bird was perfect except its head was gone! We tried to figure out what ate its head and we have been looking for snakes or whatever animal did that.” My wife looked slightly horrified by this report and she asked the children, “What did you do when you found the dead bird?” Before they could answer I raised my hand and said “wait, let me guess, you poked it with a stick!” My children looked at each other with gaping mouths and said, “You were watching us?” I explained that I had not been watching, but I had been a child once too. My wife looked puzzled and little disgusted by this report and I said, “Honey, everyone knows that if you find a dead bird, you have to poke it with a stick, it is just the rule of being a kid.”
As I finished telling the story I could see smiles on the 4th graders faces and we all were enjoying being outside in nature. I felt a twinge of guilt that I had gotten off topic and needed to re-focus on the Earth Day message, but I wanted to keep the positive energy that we had created. “You know, we might not be a U.S. Senator that founded Earth Day, but I bet we could do something to teach people about nature in a fun and interesting way.” I asked the group, “Let’s imagine that we are writing a funny children book about poking things in nature with sticks,” I said. “We can use our knowledge about nature but with our humor to get people to read the book and learn about outdoor discoveries.”
We decided the title of the book would be, “So, I poked it with a stick…” and began coming up with story ideas. One of the girls said, “I was walking in the woods and found a dead log, So, I poked it with a stick and discovered it was alive inside with insects and worms!” A boy said, “I found some coyote scat, so I poked it with a stick, and saw it had been eating….something with fur.” “That’ the idea,” I said, “what else do we got?” The ideas continued and we named fungus, likens, cattail heads, etc. We also decided that our book should focus on being kind to nature and we agreed that no living things would be poked with sticks in our story. We would only poke things with sticks that are dead, slimy, rotting, decomposing, and normal nonliving nature things.
We returned to the classroom and made a list of all our “poking” ideas. As I read the list out loud to the classroom, I told them I had a confession. “I feel a little guilty for not sticking to the schedule today,” Within seconds one of the students said, “That’s okay, if we could write a book or get people to learn about nature, that IS helping the Earth!” I agreed with this statement and told my fellow authors that we might need to do some more research before we can finish this story. I bet there are hundreds of discoveries waiting to be investigated and prodded. We agreed to continue to explore for more story ideas and think about how to share our discoveries.