Tips to help you connect your family to nature!
Students use a nature guide to help identify the bird in hand. The Black Canyon Audubon Society volunteers host a learning station featuring taxidermy bird specimens to help students learn about bird adaptations to their environment and food sources, and how to identify birds likely observed in their neighborhoods during the North Fork Conservation Days (Paonia).
It’s a bit like speed dating for adults only this event involves quick learning interactions for kids. Springtime environmental education events are ways for elementary students to engage with natural resource experts to learn as much as possible in a short period. Each dedicated specialist has 20-25 minutes to engage elementary students about their area of expertise with hands-on activities and tips about their jobs. Students rotate through 8 to 9 stations in a day to learn about many topics, such as how forests contribute to healthy watersheds, how various aquatic insects indicate water quality, what kinds of items can be recycled, and much more. Montrose, Grand Junction, and the North Fork Valley all have festivals organized and sponsored by many organizations, partners, and volunteers who work together to provide this opportunity for the youth of these communities.
Presenters, mostly natural resources experts from various agencies, explain aspects of their field that most kids, and even some adults, never think about. As an added bonus, students get insights into various natural resource careers. “These can be defining moments for young minds that may influence their choices for a lifelong passion or a future career path,” says Anita Evans of Friends of Youth and Nature, one of the funding contributors to the event.
For the last 30 years, fourth graders from the Uncompahgre Valley have attended the Montrose event organized by the Shavano Conservation District. The Natural Resource Festival (previously known as the Water Festival) draws approximately 450 -500 students each year. This May students headed to Baldridge Park for a full day of fun learning activities. “Classes rotate through 9 learning stations, out of 29 featured at the festival, and engage in activities that demonstrate the connections between their lives and the resources they depend on. Activities are focused on all of our natural resources, with an emphasis on water connections in their lives,” explains Mendy Stewart, Education Specialist for the Shavano Conservation District, and festival organizer.
“The activities are meant to be ‘hands-on’, where kids really get in the mix of things,” Stewart added. A wide array of resource topics and activities are featured such as: demonstrating how river water is treated before being sent to our faucets, making play-dough watersheds and determining where the rivers and lakes form after a simulated rainstorm, making your own recycled paper, panning for silver while learning about Colorado’s Mining history with the Colorado Department of Reclamation and Mine Safety, practicing moving water through irrigation pipes with the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users, measuring the flow of a nearby stream with a Colorado Water Commissioner and putting their math minds to work figuring the rate of flow in cubic feet per second (cfs). Other activities help kids to learn things like “Leave No Trace” and how to minimize impacts when exploring nature.
The Colorado State Forestry Department sets up an experiment where students predict the amount and quality of rainwater runoff between two watersheds (actually dirt-filled culverts), one with plants and one with bare soil. After predicting the outcome of a rainstorm, the students learn how plant cover works to slow runoff, so it can be absorbed within the watershed. “This is a huge benefit to water quality, catching soil and pollutants before they reach rivers,” explains Tanya Banulis, Colorado State forester. Dave Dearstyne, retired Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) soil scientist, focuses students’ attention on detecting some of the millions of microorganisms living in our soil. Who would think to look that closely at dirt?
This event involves a lot of planning and behind-the scenes work such as pre-festival classroom presentations and festival logistics. The festival's successes are attributed to the dedication of Stewart and the supporting host agency, the Shavano Valley Conservation District. Festival supplies, student transportation, and festival planning are made possible through matching funds to the Shavano Conservation District received from the Colorado State Conservation Board. The goal of this program is to help Conservation Districts in Colorado implement conservation projects and educational activities. In addition to the festival, the funds have also made conservation education available to San Miguel, Ouray, and Montrose County students. The activities also include source pollution presentations, 9th grade Mancos Shale Soil Salinity Experiments, and 5th and 6th grade conservation poster contests.
Stewart says these events, “...inspire learning opportunities for Western Slope students who will be part of an outdoor savvy generation. We hope they will be empowered to use what they learn to influence future decisions about land and water uses that benefit our planet now and in the future.”
Some kids take time to reflect about what they learned during the festivals; others are super excited and cannot stop talking about the day. Parents or relatives can encourage more discussion or help reinforce significant concepts kids learned. Ask your child what learning station impressed them the most? Here are a few questions that will help you start a discussion with your student:
What can you tell me about the Gunnison or Colorado River’s journey to the ocean?
What type of water bugs will you find in your favorite fishing spot?
How fast is the river near you flowing this spring?
What are the components of a beehive?
How can you harness solar power? Can you use it to make a fruit smoothie or baked good?
What should you put into your community’s recycle bins?
What foods are produced locally and where can you find them?
Friends of Youth and Nature is a non-profit promoting opportunities for youth and families to get outside, experience outdoor activities, and explore nature. Your donations as well as grants received by FOYAN from the Gunnison Basin Roundtable (DNR- Colorado Water Conservation Board) and Forever Our Rivers (Connecting Rivers and Communities) have enabled FOYAN to contribute funding for these festivals.
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