Conservationist for Kids


(This 883rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 24, 2008.)



I salute the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for producing the new nature and environment magazine, "Conservationist for Kids", targeting boys and girls in intermediate grades. Copies of this journal are available for download on the web at, but the DEC will also be distributing copies for fourth grade statewide. (The website advises fourth graders who do not receive a school copy to ask their teacher for one.)


"The NYS Conservationist" has long been a high quality journal that interprets state environmental activities for the general public. This new venture should bring the same kind of outdoors writing to youngsters at an age when they are forming their attitudes toward the world and society.


The message of this magazine is clearly: Go outside.


Richard Luov has spoken eloquently about the very serious problem we have created in his seminal book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder". Luov presents chapter after chapter of evidence of how we are failing to get our youngsters acquainted with the natural world. In just one of his stories he tells of a young boy telling him that he preferred indoors to outdoors. "Why is that?" asked Luov. After a moment of thought the boy responded, "Because there aren't any electric outlets out there."


Of course we adults don't provide very good models for our children. How can we urge our kids to get outdoors when we spend our free time lounging in front of the television or sitting in front of a computer? And I am certainly a guilty party. Here I am, a natural history columnist, yet on many days I fail to venture outside the house.


Today we have filled our kids' lives with formal activities: organized sports in particular. At least when I was young we skated outdoors; who among our children have skated on outdoor ice? What's next? I notice that indoor skiing facilities are being constructed.


So this "Conservationist for Kids" is a move in the right direction. Here are some of the activities that youngsters are directed to in this first issue:


      "Be a Wildlife Detective" urges kids to look and listen in the out-of-doors. Here and in a later section they are invited to take a notebook with them to keep a record of what they find. Can they hear, for example, "chickadees calling, the crunch of snow underfoot, the wind rattling ice-covered branches"?


      "Watching for..." adds information to things kids can find. For example, "Twigs bitten away hint that rabbits or deer have been by. Take a closer look at the bite. Are the twigs one to two feet from the ground cleanly bitten off at an angle? A rabbit has been eating. If the twig is bitten off but the cut is ragged, it is from a deer. (Deer tear twigs off as they bite.)"


      "Hidden Treasures" tells how "most insects spend the winter as eggs or pupae. Egg cases and cocoons can be found by looking closely at plant stems or the underside of leaves which remain on trees and shrubs. The egg case from a praying mantis is straw-colored and looks like a piece of shredded wheat about the size of a child's thumb." (I wish there had been a warning here about taking a mantis egg case indoors where those many eggs would hatch.)


      "Scat Chat" describes different types of animal droppings and the disgorged pellets of owls and hawks that are often confused with them.


      "A Guide to Winter Tracks" provides track patterns for common wild animals -- white-footed mouse, coyote, gray squirrel, cottontail, fox, deer and turkey -- together with dog and cat for comparison.


This journal is a wonderful concept but I must enter one reservation about it -- and the adult "Conservationist" as well. I am sorry to see these ideas tarted up in this fashion. I suppose it is necessary nowadays to compete with the profound silliness of contemporary advertising, but I compare these journals with the "Conservationist" of forty years ago and "Adirondack Life" today. Those other magazines appear far more attractive than these with their wildly overdone formatting. Flashiness does not enhance ideas, it gets in their way.-- Gerry Rising