(This 756th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 25, 2005.)
How do you introduce young children to nature?
There are, of course, many ways. As a youngster, I was captivated by the animal stories of Ernest Thompson Seton. His are exciting tales, like those of the wolf "Lobo, King of the Currumpaw" and "Krag, the Kootenay Ram" as well as semi-autobiographical adventures like those of "Two Little Savages", young boys playing at the edge of the wilderness.
Still earlier my mother read to me Felix Salton's "Bambi" and, like so many children, I was deeply impressed. How could those mean hunters shoot those lovely animals?
Never mind that I learned later that Seton was criticized by John Burroughs and President Theodore Roosevelt for assigning to his animals human qualities. And I learned too how important hunters are in addressing wildlife overpopulation.
Still those experiences excited me about wildlife and the natural world.
Today children have even more good books and they also have wonderful films like the current "March of the Penguins", a must see not only for youngsters but for everyone interested in natural history. In addition there are dozens of excellent television programs on channels like "Discovery" and "National Geographic".
But all of those are passive activities. Children need to get out and experience nature themselves.
The problem is: How do you organize such experiences? Left to their own devices children soon become bored. Nature doesn't happen fast enough for them in this world of instant gratification. Even adults have this problem. You can hike along a forest trail for miles, for example, and never see a bird or mammal. One or two moments of excitement on a day's walk can represent a good outing.
For these reasons I have great admiration for people like the staff and volunteers of the Beaver Meadow Nature Center. They can take a group of three to twelve year old children out on a quarter mile walk and excite them about the things they find: a plant gall, an unusual insect, a lightning-struck tree, a beaver lodge, a nuthatch climbing down a tree.
This same staff under the leadership of volunteer Roger Black will be offering families delightful evening programs beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Friday through Sunday, October 7-9, at the nature center on Welch Road just east of Route 77 in Java.
This 12th annual "Enchanted Forest" will give children an opportunity to visit with the animals (portrayed by costumed interpreters) who call Beaver Meadow home. They will meet Possum, Beaver, Fox, Frog, Spider and Lightning Bug, some of which will almost certainly be new to them.
Of course, this is anthropomorphism with a vengeance. But these Muppet-like characters introduce children to real animals they can then seek out on later trips. Meanwhile the children learn about the animals' life histories.
Just as important, this program is the reverse of the Halloween coin. Halloween teaches negative lessons about the dark: spooks and goblins, lions and tigers are out there. The Enchanted Forest shows children the good to be found at night for that is the time when interesting and non-threatening animals appear.
Mary Ann Brooks, who has for several years served the children refreshments at the end of their animal visits, told me about the children's response to their experience. Not only does she find the children bubbling over with enthusiasm but their parents are delighted as well.
Mary Ann asks the youngsters about their reactions and she best recalls two of the many that impressed her. One young child told her that she wondered if they shouldn't feed Charlotte the Spider to Bob the Skunk.
The other asked if all beavers smoked. Mary Ann couldn't understand this question until she learned that during a break that year the beaver role-player had lighted a cigarette and the observant child had noticed.
To see that preparations are made for the number attending (over 1400 last year with 1500 the maximum that can be served), reservations are required and there are no ticket sales at the door. Prices are $6 ($5 for Audubon members), with children 3 and under free. To reserve places call the Center at 800-377-1520.-- Gerry Rising