by Brenda Zollitsch, Policy Analyst, ASWM
As a mother of two elementary school-aged children, I always have my eye out for interesting weekend or evening activities that we can go to as a family that have hands-on learning opportunities and provide a chance to get the kids out of the house and un-bounced. Whether a picnic at a local park, a science festival, an outdoor movie night or a night lantern making event with a community parade, these kinds of activities are gold for families and others seeking to get out into their community and even learn something new. Not all parents seek these activities out, but lots and lots do.
While checking my email from a colleague in Delaware, I learned about an event they are hosting, called “Unearth the Wonderful World of Wetlands!” It is a day of wetland celebration at a state park and…I want to go! While that’s just not possible at this time, it brought to light how “possible” it is to create interesting and engaging trips and events that encourage the public (some of whom might not have visited wetlands otherwise) to visit wetlands and learn about them. Both research and practice show that if a person experiences the wonder and beauty of something first hand, they are more likely to want to protect it.
Getting People Out into Wetlands – Think Big OR Small
To encourage the creation of this kind of experience for the public, in this blog I outline some simple ideas and considerations for engaging people in wetlands, whether you are a wetland professional or just someone who might take friends for a walk through a wetland. May is Wetlands Month, so the timing is perfect to get your planning underway. If you are already connected with a wetland site as a professional or volunteer, such activities could be a guided wetland walk, a nature treasure hunt, bringing in a wildlife expert to do a presentation, or a clean-up. This would be an event that you plan and advertise it far and wide. If you don’t have the opportunity to do something formal that engages the public, getting some friends together and arranging a walk is a great way to interest people in wetlands as well. I find people are always surprised by the beauty of wetlands and the uniqueness of the ecosystems they support. If you get them to come to a wetland and teach them about what they are and what they provide, they will likely come away with a new appreciation of wetland beauty and values.
Planning a Public Engagement Event or Just a Wetland Wander
When people arrive at the wetland site, make sure you have created structured, well-planned activities and have plenty of volunteers to help new guests find the fascinating and fun opportunities at your site. There are all sorts of considerations that help make an event successful, so brush up on these (including adequate bathroom facilities, trash disposal, coverage for inclement weather, and access to drinking water). While such menial details can be boring and time-consuming, the return on investment in opening new eyes to the wonder of wetlands through positive experiences, are worth it.
Think ahead about the abilities and needs of different groups of people that may attend the event. Some sites are wheelchair accessible and have level walking paths, while others do not. Inviting people to a site where they can’t participate may negate the response you are trying to accomplish. This is also true for inviting families with children. Some sites have well-developed nature centers and bathroom facilities, others are more remote or undeveloped sites. Information on handicap access should be included in invitation materials.
If you are inviting families to attend, inform them in advance how to prepare. For example, let them know if kids should be wearing waterproof shoes, bring a change of socks, a warm jacket in case it’s chilly, or a snack and a drink. If appropriate, remind them all trash is carry-out in advance. With kids, it is important for parents to have appropriate expectations so they can prepare their children. If there is an area where there are nesting birds or parts of the trail that are not appropriate for children, give them a map and let them know ahead of time.
Don’t Assume Kids Won’t Care: Engage their Natural Curiosity
As I have mentioned in prior blogs, I am a firm believer that we should have higher expectations of children these days. We assume that if it doesn’t have a screen, kids won’t care. I frequently take kids out in nature, and not only my own. Parents are always saying to me “Good luck, little Billy isn’t much of a nature kid.” But once you get Billy out there and looking for stuff, learning funky wetland facts or doing hands-on experiments, 99% of the time Billy isn’t bored at all. Time after time, bringing a child to nature and providing engaging guidance about how to interact with it or observe it in a safe and responsible way is eye opening for the child. They want to come back.
To help create this positive experience for families, capitalize on the draw of curiosity. Children love to explore and do seek-and-find activities, so one option to help kids make the most of their visit is to create a “wetland treasure map” that has images of specific things throughout the site. On this map might be things to look for, such as a specific signpost, a uniquely shaped tree, frogs’ eggs, a visible bird house or a woodchuck burrow. The reason something like this is especially good for families is that, unlike a zoo, wetlands often don’t provide reliable opportunities for large wildlife viewing. While parents may be disappointed, I have found that kids don’t mind, unless their expectations are set up wrong. By giving them sure-fire finds, they will enjoy the simple things at the site.
Don’t assume young people won’t be interested in bigger concepts either, such as rare wildlife, hydrologic processes, how extreme weather impacts the site, etc. Just make them relevant to their world. Let them know some of the really exciting factoids about your wetland site — for example endangered species (especially with pictures, so the kids can visualize them even if they don’t see them or only can see them from afar). Point out specific types of vegetation that make your site a wetland, or even dig a soil pit so that kids can see all the different layers of soil.
Offering Experiential Learning: The Magic of Dip Nets and Other Hands-on Activities
Ideally, you will be able to provide a hands-on activity for anyone you bring to a wetland. The most popular and easiest of these activities is to carry a dip-net. Being able to lean over a boardwalk or off a dock and gently capture frogs eggs, slimy algae, water bugs or other creatures is a tried and true winner. Kids love it. Adults love it. Dip nets open the door to talk about life cycles, food chains, seasons, and biodiversity. Other activities can demonstrate how wetlands are layered, act as sponges and filter water. It is also possible to engage participants’ artistic, photographic, and scientific talents. There are oodles of online lessons to download if you want some guidance on how to structure these activities (see some examples at the end of this blog).
Discussing protecting a wetland can be incredibly important during events like these. Make the visit a teachable moment about litter, how pollutants travel across the land with stormwater and end up in wetlands and other water bodies, and how nature is better when interacted with gently. I have a very active 9 year old boy, so I find that having a fun, very physical activity start out the day – a game of tag, a wetland adventure obstacle course in a safe open area or just morning stretches are a good way to start out, so he can be quiet along a boardwalk and see birds or sit still so the tadpoles don’t swim away. Additionally, make sure to leave large well-placed and accessible trash cans in common areas and reminder signs at the start of trails. If you are leading a walk, bring a trash bag with the group to ensure no one leaves traces of your visit in the wetland.
Invite Them Back and Tell them What they Can Do to Protect Wetlands — They Might Just Do Something!
Encourage your participants to come back to the wetland site and to visit other wetlands. For some their wetland visit will be a one-time event. Yet others are likely to consider future engagement, especially if they had a very positive experience. I can’t count the number of times I have been somewhere that the kids had a blast and I grabbed a brochure about upcoming events. This is true of parents who use caregivers as well. Often parents won’t allow their children to go somewhere that they have not been themselves, but once they have seen what the site is like, feel comfortable that it is safe and know that their kids liked it there, they will allow a sitter to take them back to that site or arrange for them to go to a camp or day event there in the future.
Finally, at the end of their visit, make sure to ask your participants to do something for the wetland. Don’t let them off the hook! If they had a good time in the wetland and learned how important the wetland is to their region, make sure they understand that they can make a difference for that wetland. Maybe it’s by disposing of trash properly, helping build birdhouses, coming back for trail clearing or helping with a poster contest. You could ask them to take a picture at the wetland and enter it into a photo contest. Think ahead about what you can do to engage people over time. The possibilities are extensive, limited really only by how creative you want to get.
Whatever You Decide to Do, Get Out and Enjoy a Wetland — You Will be So Happy You Did
So today, I ask you to think about ways you can bring people into the wetlands you love — responsibly. You can do this by planning well-crafted public engagement events for Wetlands Month (May) or any other day of the year, or by simply asking the little Billy in your life if he wants to join you for a walk on the wild side. Craft your wetland adventure and invite others to join you in it. In doing so, you will be creating awareness and, most likely, a little bit of wetland magic.
For more information about Delaware’s Wetlands Celebration Day at Trap Pond State Park, go here.
For ideas about wetland engagement activities, check out the following links:
Build a Model Wetland
Middle School Wetland-related Activities
Wetland Plant Detectives
Wetland Metaphors Activity
Make Your Own Watershed Activity
Wetland Preservation Art
Common Questions: Wetland Festivals