Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Miss Mandy! Miss Mandy! Look what we found!"

This past month, joyful cries of children have been ringing in my ears. Here at Patuxent, children in nature is a top priority and that is what I devote the majority of my time and energy to. From Nature Tots to Eagle Scouts, we cater to them all.

My experiences here have ranged from puppet shows, to Girl Scout birding workshops and Boy Scout forestry workshops, to flipping over logs in search for bugs with 5-7 year-olds, to creating honey bee crafts for hundreds, just to name a few. Although it may sound like all play and no work, teaching children to get dirty can be tricky at times.

Unlike school teachers who are assigned a single grade, Patuxent is a "one room schoolhouse." Our students vary from toddlers to old timers, but no matter what their age, they all come here hoping to learn something new. As interpreters and naturalists, we must learn how to ensure that our visitors have the best experience possible and come back yearning for more.

To complicate this equation, wildlife do not always cooperate with the interpretive programs we have in mind for our visitors. For example, rarely does a day go by on the Refuge that you do not see a Canada Goose, but for my coworker's "Silly Goose" program, the resident geese decided that they would indeed be silly and not show up at all. So what do you do when the wildlife you plan on observing is nowhere to be found? You look for evidence, in this case, scat (the technical term for goose droppings).

How about when your local bright eyed and bushy tailed squirrel residents on the refuge decide not to appear for their debut when any other day they are constantly scampering about. You look under an oak tree and search for their food source, acorns. For younger children, scat and acorns are just as exciting as the animals they are associated with, but older generations are not as easily impressed.

So, how do you keep pre-teen and teenage Girl Scouts awake on a Sunday morning for birding lectures when they'd rather be sleeping in 'til noon? If all else fails, make a fool out of yourself. Run across the room with mounted birds pretending they are swooping through the air in search for a bite to eat and you are guaranteed to get their attention or at least crack a smile.  

As the Scout motto says, "be prepared." Cram your brain with as much random and interesting facts as possible, because you never know when that knowledge may come in handy. This is especially true as a tram tour interpreter. Unlike a zoo, wildilfe on the Refuge are not kept in cages. They are in their natural habitat and appear at random. Also, unlike your average guided tour, there are no specific stops along the way during a Patuxent Research Refuge tram tour. You have to make due with what comes along and sometimes that isn't much. That's when creativity is key.

These are skills that come with patience and practice which is exactly what I am working towards. I've rambled through the Wildlife Refuge System both on foot and on wheels. I've crawled through crevices in the Devil's Ice Box Cave at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park as a volunteer interpreter. I've grasped the attention of young and old and have been stumped by those half my age and those double my age more than a time or two. No matter how many times I travel the same path, I learn a new lesson with each hike I lead.

Nothing beats seeing the faces of children light up when they've cornered a frog, captured a flying insect in a net, gazed at bald eagle soaring above through binoculars for the first time, or opened their eyes to the mushrooms covering the forest floor. No matter how old you are the wonders of wildlife never cease to amaze us and I am fortunate enough to get the chance to help people discover the beauty of nature each and every day.


  1. Hi Mandy, I used to be the Interpretive Programs Coordinator at Patuxent. I saw the link to your blog from the recent Friends Newsletter and decided to check it out. I remember my days doing these *EXACT* same things very fondly. :) Thanks for the trip down memory lane and I hope you enjoy your time at Patuxent!

  2. Thanks Kate! Glad my blog is reaching out to others. I am most certainly enjoying my time at Patuxent and it's already about to end. Good hearing from you!