On a sunny afternoon in late July, three girls and three boys are clustered around converging trails in the prairie portion of the Garden. Two of them are looking intently at gently waving grasses, leaves and flowers.
Photo below: Program Coordinator Lauren Borer Leading a School Group
A couple of others are sitting on a stone bench, writing and drawing in books made of drawing paper and colored construction paper. Wildflower Garden Naturalist Diana Thottungal is on her knees in their midst, describing the insects the kids have collected in bug boxes (clear plastic containers with built-in magnification) and patiently answering their questions.
“Yes, that’s the queen bee; she lays all the eggs for the bee colony.”
“This insect is called a hemipteran. See how it’s sitting on that tiny bit of leaf?”
“This looks like a miniature wasp.” Twelve-year-old Armando, intent on his drawing, asks how to spell miniature, which he shortens to mini.
“Tell me how many legs you count on this daddy longlegs.”
“Do you see the yellow on this bee’s legs? That’s pollen from the flowers she’s visited.”
“No, this one’s definitely not a beetle. It’s some kind of fly—look at the single pair of wings.”
“You know what this bee will do when we release her? She’ll fly away toward the flowers—she’s not interested in stinging you.” This, to a girl who wanted reassurance that the bees wouldn’t sting her when they were released.
The group of questioning students, from Little Earth Youth Development Center, is one of five school groups bused to the Garden through a 2009 program funded by the Friends of the Wild Flower Garden. The Friends provide transportation funding to the Garden for eligible K-12 Minneapolis school groups.
Garden Program Coordinator Lauren Borer began planning the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board’s School Groups Program with Minneapolis School District staff members in January.
“The whole idea behind the program,” Lauren explains, “is to reach low-income and minority kids in Minneapolis schools—kids who’ve not had a lot of exposure to the natural world.” About 200 students, including Hmong, Somali, Native American and African-American children, visited the Garden this summer as a result of this program.
Each school visit includes a one-hour tour of the garden, led by one or more naturalists from the Garden staff. For larger groups, naturalists from the Minneapolis Park Board assist. Tours and programs are adapted to the age of the students.
“Usually we divide into groups, trying to keep the ratio to 10:1 students to naturalist. We start out with a welcome and introduction, go over the rules—like not picking flowers or going off the trails—and then we head out,” says Lauren. “With the younger kids, we do a lot of sensory stuff—feel this, smell this, let’s look at this, check out these insects, let’s listen for birds. We try to bring our presentation down to their level and look at things at lower heights. In fact, sometimes the kids are spotting things that I’ve never seen!”
Sometimes the surroundings are new to the naturalists, too. Ashley Taberyi, a Park Board naturalist, hadn’t been to the Wildflower Garden before, and was unfamiliar with some of the plants on the walk through the prairie. “This is great! I’m definitely coming here again on my own,” she exclaimed at the end of a tour with a group from the Pratt Community School’s Summer Splash program.
“It’s amazing how quickly an hour goes by,” Lauren adds. “Sometimes it’s like a whirlwind, especially with the larger groups, and you might not feel like you taught them anything. But then you realize that just showing them a beetle close up would be something big for them. The staff members are really enthusiastic, and the kids love that,” she said.
Teachers who participated in the program agreed. Jan Thurn, a teacher with the Pratt Summer Splash program, pointed out that one of her students “started out some-what afraid of the hike through the bog. She was a little bothered by the effort it took to climb up and down the paths, and was frustrated with the bugs. But when our naturalist asked the group at the end if they remembered anything special, this same student was the first to speak up. She said, ‘We learned about the bog—how old it is, and how it’s one of the few still around.’ Her comment reassured me that she had comprehended the value of the visit and the importance and beauty of nature.”
Diana looks at her watch and announces that they need to head back to the Garden shelter. The group has collected seven insects—enough for each child and Diana to carry one of the bug boxes. On the way back, adults and children sight a few more insects. Someone sees a dragonfly skittering among the foliage, and Diana remarks, a little regretfully, “I’ve never been able to catch one of those to show a group. They’re too fast for me!”
After Diana releases the worker bee—which does indeed fly off without a backwards glance—there’s one last surprise in store: A downy woodpecker appears at the feeder, vigorously pecking at the suet in a hanging log and drawing oohs and aahs. After a volunteer takes a few photos of the kids showing off their handiwork, the group heads up the slope toward the front gates and their van.
Jan said of the group visit program: “Many of our kids come from families who do not own a car or do not travel far beyond their neighborhood. They often do not know how to understand, enjoy or respond to the natural world—it is very foreign to them. The visit to Eloise Butler is a wonderful beginning to their understanding of nature. It broadens their world in a new way that will perhaps enhance their lives again and again.”
Donna Ahrens is a garden volunteer and was a member of the board of directors of the Friends of the Wild Flower Garden.
This Article was published in The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 57 #4, Autumn 2009
There’s a season for everything in the Garden: trout lilies, tree frogs, warblers, and—most anticipated of all—summer school students. Visit in June, and you might catch sight of the Showy Lady's Slipper….but come in July, and you could witness 10-year-olds magically turning into birds, traveling 10,000 years into the past to melt glaciers, comparing bog acidity to the pH of their tongues, and learning to use binoculars for the first time.
Every summer, hundreds of rising fourth and fifth graders from Minneapolis Public Schools visit the Garden for its summer school field trip program. Although most school groups visiting the Garden only stay for an hour, summer school students are immersed in nature for most of their school day. Aligned with science standards for their grade level, the program explores the concept of adaptations. Half the day focuses on birds, using games and hands-on play to investigate how birds have adapted to survive in their habitats. For many children, the highlight is the opportunity to see birds up close. It’s often the most wiggly students who become glued to their binoculars, sitting statue-still and hushing their peers as woodpeckers swoop onto the feeder. The other half of the day is a trek to the Quaking Bog. As the last bog in Hennepin County, this preserved ecosystem offers a unique opportunity for students to search for strange, specially adapted plants; to feel the soft needles of tamarack trees, touch sticky sundews, and bounce on the mat of sphagnum moss.
“There’s no wifi in the forest!”
For many students, it’s their first time in the woods, and they arrive worrying about snakes, bugs, bears, and even tigers. By the end of the day, most of them have held an American toad, learned to treat their mosquito bites with plantain leaves, and accidentally gotten their feet wet in the bog—which causes more grins of triumph than you might expect. Garden Naturalist Annelise Brandel-Tanis says, “I love summer school because I get to see kids being curious and investigating their surroundings. It’s a change for kids to learn that being outside isn’t scary. They get to say, ‘Woah, I successfully identified poison ivy!’ or ‘I identified an edible plant!’. I like to watch them using those skills as the day goes on.”
Garden Naturalist Maia Campbell agrees, describing the benefit to children of just being in nature: “There was one group of all girls, and they had a lot of energy, so we spent a lot of time just running on the trails outside the Garden. It was a free-form experience. We’re not “teaching”—yes, we are introducing concepts—but it’s more about being out in nature and learning that that’s a fun thing.”
Continuing a Legacy
Eloise Butler grew up in a rural area, where she was able to roam the woods as a child. When she began teaching public school students in Minneapolis’ city center, she knew how important it was to introduce them to nature. Over 100 years later, the transportation grant funded by the Friends supports the work of staff to continue the story Eloise started, providing subsidized transportation for low-income youth to experience their park system. Thanks to this support, the Garden is made more accessible and continues to serve as a place where urban kids get to learn through their senses, explore their own questions, and develop relationships with plants and animals without leaving the city.
The summer school program with the Minneapolis Public School district at Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary celebrated its 11th season this year. Garden staff continue to build connections with schools, youth groups and youth-focused programs to bring more kids into the wilds of Wirth Park. In fact, since the Garden Program Coordinator position was created in 2007, the number of visiting youth who have participated in programs led by Garden naturalists has grown by over 325%. This is in addition to a variety of new and reimagined public programs that serve several hundred children and their families. Garden Naturalists strive to open doors to a lifetime of connecting with nature. Kids agree that the first visit is just the beginning. The best part of summer school? Hearing kids say, “I can’t wait to come back!”
Kyla Sisson is a Naturalist with the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board. This article appears courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
This Article was published in The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 67 No. 3, Autumn 2019
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