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New Johnson County partnership stokes kids’ curiosity about nature
‘You can already see it connecting and making a difference’
IOWA CITY — One by one, 13 brave students at the Pheasant Ridge Neighborhood Center took turns meeting Sniffles, a western fox snake.
The 4-year-olds used two fingers to feel the snake’s dry and scaly skin, with some students holding or even putting the snake around their necks. Meanwhile, Sniffles was flicking its tongue out, which the kids learned is how snakes smell and learn about their surroundings.
The students were engaged during the hour as they made observations about reptiles, listened to story time and interacted with two snakes and two ornate box turtles. The kids got more comfortable and curious about the animals during the program.
“Do you think that as a naturalist, you might want to keep studying reptiles?” Kristen Morrow, a naturalist with Johnson County Conservation, asked the class at the end of the session last Thursday. A chorus of “yeah” came as a response.
Johnson County Conservation began visiting the Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County’s early childhood education classes last month through a new partnership. Once a month during the school year, the 3- and 4-year-olds at Pheasant Ridge and Broadway neighborhood centers in Iowa City get hands-on nature programming.
This partnership is an extension of the county’s Nature Buds program, which has been offered for about a decade at Kent Park.
Morrow told The Gazette the free, monthly programming at Kent Park has always been popular. But one of the things that troubled staff was that it has a level of privilege attached to it since activities are in the middle of the week and require driving out to Kent Park near Oxford, Morrow said.
For a couple of years, county conservation has “wanted to do something that would bring these kinds of programs into the community and make it accessible to more people,” Morrow said.
That clicked into place this year. The Neighborhood Centers of Johnson County was the first organization that came to mind for Morrow. The organization is a community-based, family-centered human services agency offering programs in area schools and neighborhoods, according to its website.
“We already provide programming for their kids during the summertime … and so we were already aware of the work that they were doing, but they also fill such a great role within the community,” Morrow said.
Programming is already making a difference
Jana Garrelts, director of learning and care programs at Neighborhood Centers, is excited about the partnership and expressed what a great opportunity it is for the kids.
“You can already see it connecting and making a difference in their life,” Garrelts said.
Last month’s programming was about animal tracks and featured an animal track scavenger hunt set up around the classroom. In the following weeks, kids spotted tracks outside in the snow and near the playground, Garrelts said.
“As simple as that animal track is, it's just one more way to help instill that sense of awe and connection,” Morrow said, adding that it is another part in making kids “more aware of the ecosystem around them.”
The students will finish off the school year with a trip to Kent Park. Garrelts said the field trip will be a culmination of their learning.
Introducing kids to nature
Garrelts said sometimes there can be a disconnect between kids and nature, so “anything we can do to help bridge that gap will be really great.”
Introducing children to nature at a young age gives them the ability to be comfortable with nature and feel less scared, Garrelts added.
“I think the benefits are immense,” Garrelts said. “Just being out in nature and experiencing it, interacting with it, it just does something to the body and to the mind that really helps center and focus you.”
Morrow added how kids can also feel more comfortable with different animals and are more willing to be compassionate toward all creatures in the ecosystem. It also helps kids explore their surroundings and be more aware of what’s around them.
“Their brain is just more likely to have a fuller comprehension of all the different pieces of the ecosystem around us,” Morrow said. “If you're not exposed to that at an early age, it's like a piece of language that's missing.”
Garrelts said the partnership has been “wonderful.”
Morrow said she is eager to continue the program for the following school year, which will allow county conservation to further build a relationship with the students and for the students to keep connecting with nature.
With the Nature Buds programming at Kent Park, Morrow said kids visit even after they’ve graduated from the program. She hopes this type of relationship can be built with the students at the Neighborhood Centers.
“It's cool to see that they continue to have a strong passion for nature, and that in some ways, the Nature Buds program has helped to be a piece of that,” Morrow said.
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