Article and photos by Amanda Walker, Visitor Services Ranger, Bosque del Apache NWR
As a kid growing up in central Vermont, I spent my summer days in our backyard searching for salamanders and frogs. Into a pail they’d go for closer inspection. After I confirmed their identities as an orange four-legged animal with reddish spots and a bumpy brown amphibian, they’d be released back to their home with a story to tell their friends. I’d move on in my day reading or picking flowers.
Today, I find myself fortunate to spend parts of my days doing the same thing – albeit in a drier climate and with slightly different creatures. No longer the eight-year-old set loose to occupy the sunlight, I now get to share my curiosity with others as a park ranger. Specifically, within my local community at Socorro County elementary schools and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Beetles, lizards, spiders, birds, butterflies – these are the objects of discovery these days, and I typically have 20 or so elementary school-aged kids vying for space around a pile of scat or milkweed flower to get a closer look.
While there is no magic formula for building connections and sparking curiosity, I have found that by meeting students where they are – physically, emotionally, and intellectually – the spark is easier to ignite.
First, I spend time in the classroom getting to know students and learning about their skills and interests. We build trust and start to alleviate any anxiety they may have about exploring the natural world. We practice grouping animals by how many legs they have. We use binoculars and microscopes. We build seeds and draw ducks. We research insects and feathers. We learn how to be a naturalist.
When they arrive at Bosque del Apache, students apply these observation skills as they get to know their refuge. We describe ducks. We inspect insects. We measure tracks. We use butterfly nets and magnifying glasses. We collect seeds. We practice being naturalists.
After a few hours of exploration, they return to school with a story to tell their family and friends. I move on in my day working with volunteers or updating signs.
I reflect on my experiences and recall sparks of wonder among my students – discovering and following a wildlife trail to learn where it goes or turning over a rock to find tunnels and eggs. Those sparks make me hope. I hope they feel empowered to explore new and familiar places. I hope they are inspired to develop their connection to a space. I hope they discover that they too are stewards of Bosque del Apache.
Thinking about my own journey, I realize that the time I spent as a kid chasing my own curiosity was a significant step to arrive where I am today: a steward of nature, communicating to others about the importance of the outdoors. Perhaps my students won’t all become park rangers or biologists, but these experiences are likely to stick with them and help define their decisions. With continued support from principals, teachers, and the Friends of Bosque del Apache, we can ensure that these sparks endure. This coming school year, I’m looking forward to examining bark and wondering about piles of feathers with students as I foster exploration of this refuge in their backyard.
Staff at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge have an ongoing partnership with San Antonio Elementary School. We provide monthly phenology-based lessons to K-5 students there. During the 2022-2023 school year, we hope to pilot a new fourth-grade quarterly curriculum at Magdalena Elementary School in collaboration with Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge. The Friends of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge generously supports these programs with funds for bus scholarship and supplies. Any school who wishes to plan a field trip to Bosque del Apache may apply for a bus scholarship from the Friends of Bosque del Apache.