By Jean Janes
My four-year-old son and I stand in front of the counter at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center as the employee behind it very seriously addresses my son, “Do you pledge to learn all you can about plants and animals?”
He responds with a timid nod.
“Do you pledge to pick up any litter that you see and put trash in garbage cans?”
With some encouragement, he answers, “Yes.”
“Do you pledge to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle as much as you can?”
I remind him that we do that at home all the time and his answer “Yes!” is much more enthusiastic.
“And do you pledge to visit as many Wildlife Refuges as you can?”
Having caught on, he happily shouts his final “Yes!” and the friendly employee awards him a “Junior Refuge Manager” badge and a certificate with his name on it. The little plastic pin-on badge goes on his shirt right away, and for the rest of the day, within the Refuge, and later at the grocery store, everyone we meet learns about his badge and new duties as a Junior Refuge Manager.
While most of the programs and nature walks provided at the Nisqually Refuge are geared towards adults, my son and I went to see what they offered for the smaller nature enthusiasts, particularly those under the age of five.
In addition to participating in the Junior Refuge Manager Program, we also take the time to play at the Nature Explore Area. Both activities are fun and provide me, as a parent trying to teach my son to enjoy and safeguard nature, resources with which to direct my son’s attention toward learning about the Nisqually Refuge and the life it protects.
We start at the Visitor Center where we spend some time looking over the educational exhibits they offer. We take our time exploring a relief map of the region, reading some information on local wildlife we can expect to see, as well as watching some short videos about the mission of the National Refuges across the country. We then head to the counter where we are given a pamphlet and pencil. Armed with these tools, my son and I set off on the Twin Barns Loop Trail to earn his badge and certificate.
Designed for kids from three-to-eleven and divided into age groups, my son applies himself to the three-to-seven age appropriate activities. The first item in his pamphlet is a list of items to try to find along the trails. These are items that most kids will enjoy looking at, but thanks to our list, we are sure to take notice. The list includes “a bird’s nest (old or new),” a “nurse log (a fallen tree that has other plants growing from it),” and “something red in color.” The list also reminds me of things to pay special attention to and explain to my son. A nurse log, for example, is a profound concept of death and rebirth that I hope he will remember in other contexts throughout his life. Even if this lesson does not stick this time, at least he finds it fascinating to see what happens to fallen logs.
We stop intermittently just to be still and listen. Damselflies flitter close enough for us to inspect their shimmery blue and then dart away before tiny fingers can get ahold. The bird song titters and warbles and I love the look on my son’s face as he begins to hear and understand how each one is the call of a different bird. There are signs along our trail which give information to describe a few fowl we may be hearing—herons, wrens, sandpipers, and swallows. I do not know nearly enough about birds to identify which music belongs to which, but perhaps I have sparked an interest for my son and maybe someday he will be able to match them up for me.
After an invigorating mile of walking and investigating, we head down the road to the Environmental Education Center where the Nature Explore Area is located. While the Education Center is only open by appointment for schools and field trips, the Nature Explore Area is open to all kids, with two-to-eight-year-olds in mind. With activities such as giant logs to climb through and a corner just for digging, my son has great time.
Education, responsibility, conservation, and care are values I am always trying to instill for the sake of my son and the world he is a part of, but they can be heady ideas for a carefree kid of four-years-old. Luckily, the Nisqually Refuge has given my son a badge and certificate to seal the deal, and he takes these new duties very seriously. His certificate of training is prominently displayed in our home while his badge will certainly remain a treasured item.
Clean air, clean dirt, and a whole lot of interesting things I know he’ll remember, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge has been a fun day for us both.