Betsy and I spent a chilly morning at Powell Butte with a class of 4th graders doing a native plant restoration project. As we were waiting for the school bus to arrive, we found a little garter snake on the ground and thought, “this would be cool to show the kids.” So we gently picked it up and placed it in a tupperware with some soil. When the kids arrived, we had them circle up and told them that we had found an awesome local creature, and that they could pet it if they promise to be super gentle. They were all really excited, then we told them it was a snake. Many kids were nervous, or even horrified, and told their friends “I am NOT touching a snake!” or squealed in protest.
We reassured them that this snake was completely harmless, and we began to pass it around the circle, starting with the most daring students first. Eventually, all of the kids wanted to touch it, and those who were the most afraid in the beginning wanted to look at it longer, touch it again and even hold it. We were a little surprised that it was so captivating to them, and finally we reminded the class that we had come here to plant some native trees and that it was time to release our friend back to the wild.
The kids kept talking about it all morning. Many of them had never touched a snake. As they planted trees, they got more and more excited about all the critters we found as we were digging holes, whether they found an earth worm, discovered a slug, or rescued a pill bug from the shovel-- they were all noticing and celebrating these simple organisms. The task at hand suddenly became more real to them: they weren’t just giving a new home to some young saplings, they were interacting with their local community and providing habitat for invertebrates that before were repulsive to them. Even the most squeamish kids were handling earthworms, making sure they were out of harm's way as we dug holes for the trees. The kids didn’t want to stop planting when we told them it was time to put tools away.
After working for years on secluded Catalina Island, I thought it would be a challenge to get kids excited about nature in a city park (albeit a pretty spectacular city park!). But after my first semester working with ECO here in Portland, I realize that nature doesn’t have to be a pristine wilderness area to impress a child. If we could all find joy in every earthworm we encounter, if we could appreciate what is directly in front of us and see it for how beautiful it is, then we could understand and appreciate the simple things, perhaps through the lens of a 4th grader.
Exploring Portland and surrounding areas with ECO this semester has taught me more than how to transplant a snowberry sapling and which schools offer free coffee. I've seen first-hand how easily kids are excited by their own environment, which drives them to want to protect it. It seems inherent to them, and it's a good reminder for us.
Whether I’m teaching in a school getting snotty hugs from kindergartners or hiking up a muddy trail at Johnson Creek with 5th graders, every day being at ECO is a rewarding adventure.