On a sunny afternoon in late July, three girls and three boys are clustered around converging trails in the prairie portion of the Garden. Two of them are looking intently at gently waving grasses, leaves and flowers.
Photo below: Program Coordinator Lauren Borer Leading a School Group
A couple of others are sitting on a stone bench, writing and drawing in books made of drawing paper and colored construction paper. Wildflower Garden Naturalist Diana Thottungal is on her knees in their midst, describing the insects the kids have collected in bug boxes (clear plastic containers with built-in magnification) and patiently answering their questions.
“Yes, that’s the queen bee; she lays all the eggs for the bee colony.”
“This insect is called a hemipteran. See how it’s sitting on that tiny bit of leaf?”
“This looks like a miniature wasp.” Twelve-year-old Armando, intent on his drawing, asks how to spell miniature, which he shortens to mini.
“Tell me how many legs you count on this daddy longlegs.”
“Do you see the yellow on this bee’s legs? That’s pollen from the flowers she’s visited.”
“No, this one’s definitely not a beetle. It’s some kind of fly—look at the single pair of wings.”
“You know what this bee will do when we release her? She’ll fly away toward the flowers—she’s not interested in stinging you.” This, to a girl who wanted reassurance that the bees wouldn’t sting her when they were released.
The group of questioning students, from Little Earth Youth Development Center, is one of five school groups bused to the Garden through a 2009 program funded by the Friends of the Wild Flower Garden. The Friends provide transportation funding to the Garden for eligible K-12 Minneapolis school groups.
Garden Program Coordinator Lauren Borer began planning the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board’s School Groups Program with Minneapolis School District staff members in January.
“The whole idea behind the program,” Lauren explains, “is to reach low-income and minority kids in Minneapolis schools—kids who’ve not had a lot of exposure to the natural world.” About 200 students, including Hmong, Somali, Native American and African-American children, visited the Garden this summer as a result of this program.
Each school visit includes a one-hour tour of the garden, led by one or more naturalists from the Garden staff. For larger groups, naturalists from the Minneapolis Park Board assist. Tours and programs are adapted to the age of the students.
“Usually we divide into groups, trying to keep the ratio to 10:1 students to naturalist. We start out with a welcome and introduction, go over the rules—like not picking flowers or going off the trails—and then we head out,” says Lauren. “With the younger kids, we do a lot of sensory stuff—feel this, smell this, let’s look at this, check out these insects, let’s listen for birds. We try to bring our presentation down to their level and look at things at lower heights. In fact, sometimes the kids are spotting things that I’ve never seen!”
Sometimes the surroundings are new to the naturalists, too. Ashley Taberyi, a Park Board naturalist, hadn’t been to the Wildflower Garden before, and was unfamiliar with some of the plants on the walk through the prairie. “This is great! I’m definitely coming here again on my own,” she exclaimed at the end of a tour with a group from the Pratt Community School’s Summer Splash program.
“It’s amazing how quickly an hour goes by,” Lauren adds. “Sometimes it’s like a whirlwind, especially with the larger groups, and you might not feel like you taught them anything. But then you realize that just showing them a beetle close up would be something big for them. The staff members are really enthusiastic, and the kids love that,” she said.
Teachers who participated in the program agreed. Jan Thurn, a teacher with the Pratt Summer Splash program, pointed out that one of her students “started out some-what afraid of the hike through the bog. She was a little bothered by the effort it took to climb up and down the paths, and was frustrated with the bugs. But when our naturalist asked the group at the end if they remembered anything special, this same student was the first to speak up. She said, ‘We learned about the bog—how old it is, and how it’s one of the few still around.’ Her comment reassured me that she had comprehended the value of the visit and the importance and beauty of nature.”
Diana looks at her watch and announces that they need to head back to the Garden shelter. The group has collected seven insects—enough for each child and Diana to carry one of the bug boxes. On the way back, adults and children sight a few more insects. Someone sees a dragonfly skittering among the foliage, and Diana remarks, a little regretfully, “I’ve never been able to catch one of those to show a group. They’re too fast for me!”
After Diana releases the worker bee—which does indeed fly off without a backwards glance—there’s one last surprise in store: A downy woodpecker appears at the feeder, vigorously pecking at the suet in a hanging log and drawing oohs and aahs. After a volunteer takes a few photos of the kids showing off their handiwork, the group heads up the slope toward the front gates and their van.
Jan said of the group visit program: “Many of our kids come from families who do not own a car or do not travel far beyond their neighborhood. They often do not know how to understand, enjoy or respond to the natural world—it is very foreign to them. The visit to Eloise Butler is a wonderful beginning to their understanding of nature. It broadens their world in a new way that will perhaps enhance their lives again and again.”
More information about or to contribute to the Student Transportation Grant Program
Donna Ahrens is a garden volunteer and was a member of the board of directors of the Friends of the Wild Flower Garden.
This Article was published in The Fringed Gentian™, Vol. 57 #4, Autumn 2009