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Audubon seeks volunteers for environmental education program

Amid growing concern for a lack of youthful interest in the great outdoors, Audubon Colorado is gearing up for another elementary school nature and science program. However, to pull it off, the acclaimed conservation organization needs at least 10 adult “volunteer educators.”

For the past two years, hundreds of Pagosa Springs and Dulce (N.M.) elementary school students have been fortunate to receive free outdoor education and exposure through the Four Mile Ranch Environmental Education program.

Over the preceding five years, the same age group gained similar instruction through a comparable Durango Nature Studies (DNS) program. Both the Audubon and DNS courses of study involved combined classroom training and hands-on outdoor fieldwork at Terry Hershey’s Four Mile Ranch north of town.

This fall, the Audubon-endorsed program will continue at Four Mile Ranch, with an expanded agenda to involve more than 600 students overall, including Pagosa Springs students from kindergarten through the fourth grade, as well as Dulce second-, third- and fourth-graders. Students attend, free of charge.

Before spending a day outdoors, students in a classroom setting are taught natural scientific concepts by Audubon Colorado staff. Fieldtrips follow classroom sessions, and begin Sept. 16. Depending on weather — and the number of adult educators actually enrolled — outings will either continue through Oct. 23 or Oct. 30.

In the field, volunteer educators guide small groups of students through a variety of primordial habitats, where children capture and observe insects, examine creek and beaver pond life, search for animal signs, and discover predator/prey concepts. Pupils learn insect lifecycles and anatomy, the importance of water and its movements, and the diversity and basic classifications of local flora and fauna, while engaging in exciting and memorable outdoor activities.

Audubon Colorado Southwest Regional director Becky Gillette heads the program, and hopes to recruit at least 10 additional volunteer educators. To date, she has six or eight returning from last year, but prefers a total of 20.

Educator training is free, and materials include an activities manual, adult-level natural history education, program site orientation, group management and child development information, and outdoor safety protocols. Volunteers provide their own backpacks and appropriate outdoor attire.

Volunteer training begins (at the Four Mile Ranch) Wednesday, Sept. 9. The first session will run from 4 to 7 p.m., while subsequent sessions are scheduled between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Sept. 11 and 12 (Friday and Saturday). No previous teaching experience is necessary; but advance registration, attendance at all training sessions and a background check are mandatory.

“A well-trained group of Volunteer Educators is the key to the success of this program,” Gillette wrote in a recent press release. “These dedicated community members give young people the opportunity to explore their local environment and learn science directly from the natural world in a way that is not possible inside a school building. While expanding their own knowledge and experience, Volunteer Educators help the future leaders of our community build compassion and understanding for the natural world.”

Though the length of actual field education classes will vary somewhat depending on student ages, educators can expect to participate between 8:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Gillette suggests some Fridays may also be involved, and a few rain days are scheduled, just in case.

While living among soaring peaks and vast wilderness areas, crystalline rivers, and diverse wildlife, many area youngsters apparently prefer television, video games, or text-messaging with friends, to a good walk in the woods. Of course, physical surroundings notwithstanding, they’re no different than most kids across America.

Therein, lies the concern.

According to a 2006 University of Illinois statement, “Studies indicate that children who spend lots of time outdoors have longer attention spans than kids who watch lots of television and play video games.”

In his book, “The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder,” Richard Louv suggests today’s children are so “wired” into television, computers and video games, that they’ve almost completely severed bonds with the outdoor world. According to statistics, fewer than 25 percent of today’s youth engage in outdoor activities more than twice a week.

Clearly, this trend must not continue.

To register for free volunteer educator training, or for more information on the Audubon-endorsed Four Mile Ranch Environmental Education program, contact Audubon Colorado’s Southwest Regional Director Becky Gillette at (970) 883-3066, or rgillette@audubon.org.

If you value nature and enjoy working with children, local elementary school students need your help.

chuck@pagosasun.com