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3/29/10 Nature Walkin'

At the Spring Camp in Emerald City, Zifi and I led an Environment Club. Over three days, we took the three groups of students on a walk through the neighborhood park adjoining the camp.

We'd prepared index cards with various activities, which we placed at strategic points throughout the park:

  • Look up. How many different colors of green do you see?
We placed this one just a few minutes into the park, to introduce to the students the idea of careful observation. Most kids responded with 3 or 4, until we pointed out that even the same leaf could have multiple shades of green, in the dappled light.

  • Look at the litter. How long do you think it takes these items to decompose?
Decompose was a new word for the kids, in English at least, but most of them were familiar with the concept. We put this card near a huge pile of trash - close to the size of a football field - and pointed out various pieces of garbage while giving the kids these decomposition statistics: disposable diaper 10-20 years, orange or banana peel 3-5 weeks, cigarette butts 2-5 years, plastic six pack holder 450 years, piece of paper 2-4 weeks, plastic bag 10-20 years, Aluminum can 250-350 years, wool sock 2-4 years, Styrofoam never, glass never.

We asked them
if they planned to bring their kids to this park someday - we didn't bother asking if they planned to have kids, since that's a given in this culture - and pointed out that, unless somebody stepped up with a massive cleanup effort, most of this trashpile would be waiting for their children.

The amount of litter in the otherwise lovely park depressed me. In fact, litter is the wrong word. It implies left behind detritus. This trash looked to have been deliberately dumped. In fact, the park was full of narrow mounds, mostly grown over with grass, that looked for all the world like a garbage truck had backed up, dropped a full load of trash, and driven off. Does Emerald City not have a town dump? Or is it cheaper to drop trash in the park than to pay some sort of town-dump-fee? Zifi and I speculated, and even asked the kids, but never got an answer.
  • Stop. Can you feel the warmth of the sun?

This one sat in an open area in the mostly-shaded park, and gave us a chance to bask in the sunlight (since it was chilly most of the week) and to talk about photosynthesis. Virtually none of the kids knew the word "photosynthesis" in English before we gave it to them, but most had learned about la photosynth├Ęse in Science class (which is usually conducted in French, as are half the classes by junior high and high school). They were relieved to find it a cognate (as are oxygen and carbon dioxide, for that matter. Let's hear it for the universality of science!).
  • Hug a tree.
The kids found this one goofy, but did it anyway. We talked about photosynthesis and the role trees play in giving us oxygen, as well as absorbing our carbon dioxide exhalations, let alone providing wood, paper, kindling, etc.
  • Make a rubbing of bark.
The word bark was new, as was the concept of doing a rubbing. After the first group mostly just drew on their papers while holding them against a tree, we were careful to emphasize with the second and third groups to only use the side of their crayon. The trees in question had a really gnarly bark, so the rubbings came out well. :)

  • Using only your senses of touch, smell, or taste, become familiar with one tree. You should be able to identify your tree later on.
This was a fun one. We'd blindfold a few volunteers, assign them buddies (since the ground was uneven at best, and liberally sprinkled with thorn bushes), and then have each buddy walk each blindfolded volunteer to a tree. The blinded kid would grope around at the tree, exploring the texture of the bark, feeling for low branches, sniffing it, licking it, and generally memorizing "their" tree. Then the buddy led the still-blindfolded camper back to the group, at which point we'd spin the poor blind thing in circles till they were dizzy, and then remove the blindfold and ask them to find their tree again.

We did this with about 15 of the 50 kids in camp, and every single one of them correctly identified their tree. Undoubtedly, a few were assisted by unscrupulous (or just overly-helpful) buddies, but most had simply learned so many characteristics of their tree - a knot just at knee height, or a branch at shoulder height, or a gap in the bark just there if you reached around - that no imitation, substitution, or alteration would do. We couldn't fool 'em.
  • Look down. How many different colors of green do you see?
Usually, by the time we'd gotten here, the kids were observing more carefully, and we got much higher numbers than the first time.
  • Look closely. How many living things do you see? Make a list in your notebook.
This card we placed in a relatively open spot, with a view of a stream that usually hosted a few egrets, as well as near some bushes that played home to snails. Most of the students learned the English words for ant and grass and insect here. (This is an English-language immersion camp, after all, they're supposed to be learning new words.) Some kids got really into it, and found all sorts of beetles and spiders and other creepy-crawlies.

That reminds me - once, a student asked me to translate le ver. Thinking she'd said le vert, the grass/greenery, I gave them grass. But as I heard them passing the word to each other, I realized they meant worm, and suddenly remembered the tongue-twister from French class, Le ver vert travers la vert vers la verre vert. The green worm crosses the the grass towards the green glass. And all the words are homonyms (or nearly, for travers). OK, sorry, end tangent.
  • Close your eyes. Listen. What do you hear? Make a list in your notebook.
Most of the students discerned the nearby flowing stream, the wind through the eucalyptus leaves, crickets, frogs, and a few birds. A few snarky kids pointed out that they could hear their not-so-silent friends, too.
  • Imagine - what did this park look like 100 years ago? Draw in your notebook.
We placed this card in one of the most picturesque sections of the park, far from the dump sites and the toxic sludge growing in the pond. By this point in the walk, we were usually running late, so sometimes we had the kids draw, and other times, we just talked about what we saw. Most of the kids knew that the eucalyptus trees in this area were all non-native, introduced from Australia fairly recently. The Water and Forestry Department loves planting eucalyptus trees. Kalaytus, as they're known here, grow ridiculously quickly, so tree-planting projects look successful within a matter of years. Unfortunately, they also poison the soil, so there's never much (if any) undergrowth.
  • Make a rubbing of a leaf.
By the time we got here, we never had any time, so we skipped this activity all three days. Sorry, leaves. You'll get love another time.
  • Imagine – what will this park look like in 100 years?
We placed this card on top of a garbage pile that someone had dumped right smack in the middle of the road. They hadn't even pulled into the trees, like the rest of the trash dumpers. We gave the kids the chance to speculate whether the park would be cleaned up or would turn into a multi-acre trash heap. Most kids went with a middle ground, anticipating that it would be a housing development. Given how rapidly this Casablanca suburb is growing, they're probably right.

At this point, we walked the kids back to camp, thanked them for joining us on a nature walk, and sent them off to their afternoon activity.

PS: Of the three groups we took out, we never once had a kid wander off (helped by having either Zifi or me walk sweep), but we did occasionally have extra kids join in. I'm not sure where they wandered in from, but as long as everyone who we'd left with, came back, I figured we'd done our jobs.

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