Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Snakes and salamanders and kids, oh my!

Nicole Hafer is the education wildlife specialist for the Muskingum SWCD

Last week was the beginning of another great summer of the Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District’s Kids Conservation Camp. This is the 10th year the district has hosted this bi-weekly camp, which is held every Monday and Wednesday for 11 weeks.

Conservation Camp is without a doubt my favorite part of my job. I have several high school students in the program that have been with me for the entire 10 years I have run the camp. They also serve as positive role models for younger campers. One of the things I love about this program is that it allows kids to really look at nature on their level. We spend hours in the stream and hiking in the woods in search of all the amazing things hiding beneath our feet.

When you spend as much time outside with kids as I do, you learn some interesting things about them, including what they are afraid of. As a person terrified by spiders of any size, I can respect their fears. The really cool thing with kids, is that they are young enough to not have formed a permanent impression of certain animals in their minds, so these fears can be overcome. Nothing says “come touch a snake” more than one of your fellow campers holding it; however, that said, sometimes it takes a bit more persuasion to overcome a fear than simply peer pressure. I experienced this first hand on our first day of camp.

To set the scene, I asked the older boys to get a shovel and wheel barrow from the maintenance shop at Blue Rock so we could begin the site prep for our rain garden. They returned a few minutes, without the requested tools, holding a young black rat snake they found on the road. The camper holding the snake has been in the program for many years. The snake had bitten him and he was bleeding a little. When I asked him about the bite, he informed me he made sure it wasn’t poisonous before he picked it up. Clearly, I’d taught him something.

He was immediately surrounded by other campers who wanted to touch the snake and a few brave souls willing to risk a bite to hold it (they have also been in the program several years). Two new little girls, age 8 and 9, stated they were afraid of snakes and didn’t want to touch it. One of the other campers inquired why they were afraid of them, the girls replied that they were slimy and their parents hated snakes. Several of the older girls explained that the snake bit the camper because it was afraid, that they weren’t slimy. Both girls then decided to pet the snake, they asked a ton of questions about the snakes we find at camp, and after a few minutes thought snakes were cool, too. When we headed to the stream, the scene was repeated, minus the bite, with several salamanders. By the end of the day, one of the girls was even carrying the snake in the container and walked up with the boys to release it. Score one for reptile conservation.

The moral of the story is not that parents are terrible for making their kids afraid of things; I’m ashamed to admit both my daughters also are terrified of spiders, but to emphasize the importance of getting kids outside. If those girls never had a positive experience with snakes, they would grow up to believe snakes were slimy, scary creatures. Slimy, scary creatures don’t make people want to protect them or their habitat. To get someone to care about another living thing, they often need to experience it up close and personal.Take your kids outside. It’s just outside your back door, totally free, and a great way to discover something amazing.

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