New wildflowers and birds are appearing almost daily. Natural events that make up nature’s calendar, known as phenology to scientists, may be somewhat compressed this year as Mother Nature tries to make up for lost time. Woodland wildflowers must grow, bloom and set seed before the tree canopy fills in and captures most of the sunlight. Spring migration, always an urgent affair, will be even more so this year as birds that were held up by lingering winter weather race to their northern nesting areas. My oriole feeder is being visited by orioles hungry for sugar nectar. It’s also time to clean, fill and place hummingbird feeders. My backyard bluebirds laid their first egg on May 3.
We all waited anxiously for weather like this while winter refused release its grip. It’s here, but may not last long before summer comes barreling in. Children usually have a natural love for playing outdoors if they have the chance to experience it – at least before they get their hands on little screens with buttons to push. Those few golden years before digital addiction may be the best, and maybe the only, chance they have to develop a positive relationship with the outdoors and nature. Kids of my generation played outdoors a great deal of the time. Our parents nearly threw us out the door once spring arrived, but today’s kids may not experience the wonder of outdoor play unless their adults make sure they have the opportunity.
We are blessed with many fine parks, both urban and rural, around Story County. Many offer trails for hiking, biking or even pushing a stroller. Some have colorful commercial play-scapes where kids can climb, slide and swing. A few now offer nature play areas where the “equipment” is composed of rocks, logs and grassy slopes. McFarland Park northeast of Ames now offers a unique nature play area just east of the conservation center, where kids can climb and jump, but also build or even make music with natural objects. The play area is right next to the Touch-A-Life Trail, a paved, fully accessible path where one can get right up close to a wide variety of trees, shrubs and wildflowers. The bird feeder area at the center is always busy. A family can watch quite a variety of birds from the comfort of the air-conditioned lobby, or, better yet, head for the bird blind west of McFarland Park’s lake, where a family can remain unseen as they watch and listen to birds because there’s no glass between the viewer and the bird. New Dakins Lake Park at the north edge of Zearing also has a wonderful nature play area next to the campground.
The key to giving children the gift of wonder and delight in nature rests with whatever caring adults the kids have access to. It matters little if it’s a parent, grandparent or favorite babysitter. If the trusted adult shows interest and pleasure in nature’s many delights, the child will rapidly and enthusiastically follow suit. My generation learned to love the outdoors as we enjoyed hours of unsupervised outdoor play, with only occasional encouragement or direction from adults. Today’s young children need the conscious effort of caring and nature-loving adults if they are to develop that all-important relationship with nature. Even a yard works. My grandson and I built a couple of Eeyore houses (read Winnie the Pooh) with longer branches we gathered and leaned together in teepee fashion. I was “put in jail” in one of them for awhile by the “Sheriff of Nottingham.” The adult doesn’t need to know what a flower’s name is, but they must show delight that the flower is pretty, blue and smells good. A few flowers even stink, but that, too, is another wonder to marvel at. We shouldn’t pick any flowers, but there are plenty more treasures that a kid can find, collect in their pockets and delight in. Even a short walk or play session outdoors might discover various nuts, pretty rocks or rocks that make a splash when thrown into a pond or stream. Sticks are fun to follow as they float down a stream. All of you nature-loving adults need to promise that no child you have a relationship with will be left indoors as these all-too-few golden days of spring flash by. Find the child in yourself again and experience the joy and excitement that sharing an outdoor spring day with a child can give!
Steve Lekwa is a retired director of Story County Conservation.