It’s the beginning of a new program. Fort McAllister State Historic Park hosted a one-day camp called Junior Naturalist Mini Camp for children ages 8-12 recently.
“We usually have two week-long junior ranger camps in the summer, and as an experiment we wanted to try a one-day camp that condensed what you would get in a week-long program into one day,” naturalist Trevor Johnston said. “It was definitely a success. We had 16 children come.
“We didn’t expect that many kids to come out to this event, so we were very surprised. Many of them were new faces. In fact, only one of the children was someone who comes to our junior ranger camps, and the other 15 were all people we had never seen before,” he said.
During the one-day camp, children were taught about nature from the forest to the river to the marsh. After getting acquainted, the day began by learning about the different ecosystems at Fort McAllister.
“We discussed the forest and marsh, and which animals live in the different areas,” naturalist Shirley Rowe said. “After that, the children were given a variety of foods to use to create an ecosystem. They created some very well thought-out ecosystems. One made a rain forest and another made a swamp. After telling everyone what they had created, we let them eat their ecosystems. I think they really enjoyed that part.”
The naturalists also discussed with the children which birds live in the park, explaining the different behaviors of each. The children loaded into a big wagon to go outside for bird watching.
“They loved the binoculars and seeing the birds up close,” said Rowe, who has worked at Fort McAllister for a year and a half. “Everyone was excited when we found a Northern Harrier. This is a large hawk that is only here in the winter months.”
Johnston, who works as the main counselor for the junior ranger camps, said children can more easily identify with the information being taught through hands-on learning.
“You can learn in a classroom setting, but you don’t get to experience the hands-on — the stuff that will keep their attention and keep them interested in what they are learning about,” Johnston, who has worked at Fort McAllister for three years, said. “They can connect better with the information that we’re giving them and it sticks more when done in a hands-on environment.”
After lunch, the children were given the option of making a pine cone bird feeder or a pine cone owl. Most of the children chose to create a pine cone owl.
While they made their crafts, they learned about water usage and conservation. The children also made a water conservation poster to take home with them.
“At the end of the day, we got many hugs and thanks from the children,” Rowe said. “Several said that they want to come again and learn more about nature. One boy came up to me and said ‘You know, before I came here I didn’t know much about nature. If I hadn’t come today, I would not appreciate nature like I do now.’ He said he will ask for binoculars for his next birthday. I think that says a lot about how the children enjoyed their experience.”
Because Johnston and Rowe felt like the mini camp was such a success, they plan to host another one in the spring. The next Junior Naturalist Mini Camp will be from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday, April 9.
“We find that kids especially in our area are very interested in the outdoors and topics that have to do with the outdoors,” Johnston said. “We like doing programs with these kids that help inform them more about their environment and their ecosystems so they can apply what they learn to the places where they live. We do it because they are the future of this park.”
Fort McAllister State Historic Park offers a variety of educational programs for adults and children. They also offer a monthly class for home-schooled children.
“As a naturalist at Fort McAllister, part of my job involves educating the park visitors about nature,” said Rowe, who offers a hike on the first Saturday of each month. “I especially love teaching children to appreciate spending time outdoors and enjoying looking for birds and other inhabitants of the park. This camp was the perfect way to get children in the right environment for learning to appreciate nature. Because they are here for several hours, we have the time to go in depth on the topics we cover.”
For more information on Fort McAllister’s programs and events, call the park at 727-2339 or go to www.gastateparks.org/FortMcAllister.