As kids trooped into the Montana Audubon Center last week, they gave no indication of being daunted by a steady rain.
It helped that all of them had been issued rain boots and heavy-duty rain pants and jackets. It also helped that nearly all of them were more focused on the squirming worms, picked up along the way, that they were holding in their hands.
More than anything, though, it helped that all of them were veteran participants in the center’s Fledglings Nature Preschool, which is committed to having the children spend 80 percent of their time outdoors.
“If all the kids learn at the end of the day is how to be outside when conditions are not ideal, then we’ve done our job,” said center director Carolyn Sevier.
In the past, some parents have been worried about sending their children to the preschool program on cold winter days. This spring, a few parents were alarmed because they thought their children would canoeing on the nearby Yellowstone River, rather than on the three small ponds that dot the center’s 54 acres, as was actually the case.
Still another apparent hazard recently prompted some parents to keep their children from accompanying an Audubon Center naturalist on a field trip to the Sundance Lodge Recreation Area, a Bureau of Land Management natural area along the Clarks Fork River just above its confluence with the Yellowstone.
This was in early May, a day or two after the Billings Gazette ran an alarming story about a woman whose two dogs picked up hundreds of ticks at Sundance Lodge. Cat Lynch, the Audubon naturalist who took students from Elder Grove School to Sundance Lodge, said the parents could have learned from their children that there was really nothing to worry about.
For one thing, she said, this hasn’t been a particularly bad year for ticks. For another, all field trips include plenty of information about ticks — where they’re mostly likely to hang out and how students can check themselves and others for ticks throughout the day.
“I always bring a ‘tick jar’ with rubbing alcohol in it, and whenever we find one on a student we plop it into the jar,” Lynch said.
They were at Sundance Lodge all week, and the first day was bad, she said. They found 24 ticks on students that day, and a total of 40 for the week, Lynch said, but none of the ticks were embedded because of how often and how carefully everyone checks for them.
By the end of each class, Lynch said, “most, if not all students, are much less stressed about them and know how to avoid them or deal with them should they find tiny livestock on their person.”
Sevier said another Audubon naturalist regularly carries Tic Tac mints so she can reward her students with a treat for every tick they find. It’s all part of trying to teach children what was once common knowledge, back when virtually all kids spent a good part of their day outside.
“If the kids are not getting that experience, we’re all poorer for it,” Sevier said.
And it’s not just the kids who harbor misconceptions about the natural world, Sevier said, noting that for many people, “nature is either a pretty backdrop or a source of fear.”
The Montana Audubon Center has been working to instill a better understanding of the natural world since it opened 10 years ago. It is located on the site of what had once been a gravel pit off South Billings Boulevard, just north of where that road crosses the Yellowstone. The center’s parking lot is adjacent to the parking lot for Norm Schoenthal Island.
The centerpiece of the complex is the Norm Schoenthal Field Lab, named for a founding member of the Yellowstone River Parks Association, which operates the center in partnership with Montana Audubon.
The center’s programs have gotten so big that one garage-storage area in the field lab was converted to classroom space for preschoolers. Montana Audubon and the YRPA also did fundraising to build a yurt behind the wet lab. It is nearing completion and will also be used for preschool classes.
In addition to the preschool programs, the center also offers ANTS, for Audubon Naturalists in the Schools. Naturalists visit participating schools throughout the academic year and students visit the center or go on field trips elsewhere.
The program mixes interdisciplinary science learning with Montana Indian Education for All and now serves 70 classrooms in District 2 and surrounding school districts. By next year, Sevier said, ANTS will reach every fourth-grade class in School District 2.
The center also offers out-of-school programs that are popular with home-schooled students, as well as a variety of public and adult programming, including a Master Naturalist class, bird strolls and a flower photography workshop.
The success of all those programs has come somewhat at the expense of “organizational infrastructure,” Sevier said, things like fundraising, volunteer recruitment and getting the word out to the larger community about how many events and activities are available at the center.
The good news is that the center is not struggling anymore, Sevier said, and only needs to sharpen its operational skills and focus more on the mechanics of running a big, broad organization.
In the meantime, she said, “it’s messy, it’s chaotic, but that’s what real communities look like.”