November 03, 2011 | Andrew Steiner
On a rainy afternoon in late October, more than 20 three-to-seven-year-olds and their caregivers arrived at the Bunker Interpretive Center for the second week of Critters and Company. Nancy McIntyre, a veteran nature center volunteer, who has worked with the Bunker staff since fall 2009, introduced the day’s subject: ants.
To discover what ants eat and whether or not they will brave the rain to find food, the class would conduct an experiment: They would carry a plate covered in shaved coconut, sugar and salt to the edge of the Ecosystem Preserve’s prairie and watch the results.
Becca Hibbler, an elementary education major who writes the lesson plans for Critters and Company, had prepared a few other ant-related activities for the class: reading a picture book about the life cycle of ants, role playing the life of an ant colony and crafting ant sculptures out of egg cartons.
Back inside, the kids drew a ten-legged creature on the white board, their approximation of what an ant looks like. Then McIntyre read them a picture book about the insect’s metamorphosis and daily habits, and when she had finished, she tested their knowledge: “Who can tell me how many legs an insect has?” A girl at the back of the room raised her hand. “Maddison?”
“I have an ant on my card,” Maddison said, holding up her name tag.
McIntyre called her up, and the other kids grabbed magnifying glasses from a nearby bin and took turns examining her find. McIntyre pointed out its six legs and three body segments, and the kids reconsidered their drawing.
Critters and Company focuses on teaching about nature through sight, touch and smell. The following week incorporated taste, as the staff brought in a spread of Michigan-grown apples for the class to sample. McIntyre believes that teaching through the senses helps children remember what they learn.
In order to help kids experience nature firsthand, Jeanette Henderson, program manager of the Ecosystem Preserve, tries to bring them out into the woods and prairie as much as she can, even if the weather is less than clement. This opens the door for unplanned lessons like the one learned that afternoon.
As the class tramped out to the prairie, Henderson stopped them. She had spotted a troop of Shaggy Manes Mushrooms that had popped up overnight. She picked one, and the kids crowded around to get a look at it. “What does it feel like, Lilly?” Henderson asked.
“Squishy,” she replied.
“What does it smell like?”
The winter and spring series are structured around the same principle—learning through experience. In the spring, attendees examine frogs, wildflowers and birds, and in the winter, trees, snowflakes and animal camouflage. For many of the young students, enduring the cold or rain appears to be a reasonable price to pay for being outside.
Before class began, Andrew, a preschooler sporting a pair of fire truck Wellies, was sorting through the contents of his “nature treasure bucket.” The two-gallon ice cream tub was filled with the twigs and seeds he had collected the week before.
According to his mother, Cathy, Andrew “spends all of his time outside, even during a blizzard,” making Critters and Company a good match for him. On top of that, Cathy said, “it’s a really reasonably priced class—it’s ridiculous. And it’s interesting.”
In the fall, winter and spring, Henderson runs up to three classes concurrently, depending on demand, and the program’s popularity is on the rise, she said: This season 45 kids and 29 parents attended Critters and Company, the highest number for the fall series yet.
The focus of the program, Henderson explained, is not simply education. “It’s not a school program,” she said. “We want to parents to learn with them.”
Henderson sees society becoming increasingly alienated from the natural world as technologies assume an ever larger even in the lives of children. By basing Critters and Company on a caregiver/child model, Henderson wants to encourage what she calls “a lifestyle of being outside, connecting to the world around us …, connecti[ng] with other families that care about God’s creation.”
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