Monday, October 22, 2012

Getting Kids INTO the OUTDOORS

Happy Color-filled Days!

Back from Tustin Michigan where I delivered a keynote speech at the Michigan Alliance for Environmental Education last weekend. I thought I would share some of my speech from that rainy, rainy, rainy, cold, cold day--that day of equipment hunting and set up challenges--which is the day my speech was delayed by a half an hour to a hurried group. Needless to say by the time I hit the podium I was sweating bullets. As folks lunched I had to move fast and share about the importance of story to get kids into nature and about my life as a storyteller.

I shared about how it all began--from way back.  How at age 6,my family went from living in the city of Pontiac to wild Clarkston--to live a safer, healthier life.
How my mother used to warn us kids of wild animals to keep us close to home. "WATCH out for:"  yowling wildcats that filled the woods, Massasauga rattlesnakes (we lived on their breeding ground), rabid roaming raccoons, and wily foxes that raided the hen house in the early morning. But it was the dreaded and feared badger that got our attention and kept us on our toes. That warning we heard every time we walked to the bus stop. That thrilling ever present badger danger made nature exciting and kept us outside exploring. Stories of creepy, gross and dangerous things enthrall kids.

This is how Holly Wild book one came to be--it was the story of my nature mishap on Beaver Island. Our imaginations got carried away with us when our squishy, brown arm-length find of a creepy kind lying on the shore of Lake Genesrath became not plant or animal but a human arm. It was the thrill of finding something unknown that made the event a good story. How it came around to be human beats me. Maybe it was the approaching storm, the green sky, the pelting hail, screaming kids. Who knows. But story was born--and heck it was adventure and we were all out exploring. Besides, this naturalist mishap turned into a teaching moment. The biologist at the CMU Bio station informed us that the "creepy arm" was a "pine snake" (pretty close--plant & animal name)  spatterdock rhizome--he was kind and patient with us and even showed us around.

Years later when I had a woman stop by the nature center I worked at, I got to use this kind, patient stance as the woman asked me. "So when does the Hummingbird Moth turn into a Hummingbird?" How or where she got this notion I have no idea. But I am sure it came from the same place where we thought the Beaver Island rhizome was an arm. The colorful world of imagination, curiosity and wondering. I had walked in this woman's shoes before. Of course the answer was NEVER, but at least this brave woman asked--and she was outside on a nice day wondering and wandering. It is good story.

I went on to tell the lunching crowd about the time I went sketching with a pal at Howell Nature Center. I also told them why having a sketching buddy is a good thing--they become your witness. While drawing a sleepy porcupine in its enclosure, my friend Matt and I overhead an older woman telling a young boy of 6 or 7, "Did you know that porcupines fling their quills that release poison to stun their attackers?" Both Matt and I turned to watch the woman and child hurry away. Wow! Where do these myths come from?

Nature myths seem to make nature so much more exciting. Then it hit me, will this kid grow up and tell his grand-kids something like "DID you know KNOW that porcupines inflate their hollow quills when they hold their breath, float over  their attackers and scream "Death from Above!" and then fall on the predator stunning it before blowing it to bits and poisoning it?" Nature educators have their jobs cut out for them. But the good thing here was--at least an adult had a child outside on a beautiful day to see nature and wonder about it.

Which brings me to my recent story at a library program where a young lady informed the crowd of kids that "snapping turtles climb out of their shells at the first sign of danger and that they have long sharp teeth--so beware of snappers!" That myth was gently dispelled and it actually went well with our weird animal theme. Kids had to create their own animal and find and draw their super adaptation powers in the Biofact Boxes of creepy: bones, bugs, bats, snakeskin, etc. And I had to wonder as this young storyteller bought both Holly Wild books from me, "Is another writer and storyteller born?" We can only hope.