Children seem to have a natural affinity for the world of nature.
In the mind of a child, the excitement of finding a frog by the side of a marsh or an abandoned bird nest in a bush can almost be compared to winning a lottery.
108 Mile naturalist, Patricia Spencer, still savours those kinds of memories from her own childhood, when her curiosity about nature was sparked. Nurturing those interests came from her dad, who she says filled her world with camping trips and backpacking adventures.
“He was my first mentor,” Spencer says, adding she attributes much of her love of nature to him.
As a former teacher who spent 28 years working in School District 27, Spencer has had the pleasure of sharing her love of the outdoors with children at Bridge Lake Elementary School and other schools in 100 Mile House.
During that time, she also earned a master’s degree in a combination of fine arts and environmental education which she tailored herself.
"Those are my two passions," says Spencer, and her excitement during discussions of art, dance and music, and the well-worn hiking boots she wears on her feet are a testament to each.
Sharing her passions is just as important to Spencer as her personal enjoyment of them, and she does that by mentoring adults and children through various outdoor programs.
For several years, with the former Whistler Northwind Tours, she offered eco-tours and bird-watching tours mainly to 108 Resort tourists and people who were in the area.
She’s also studied tracking, nature awareness and survival with Tom Brown Jr., a renowned American naturalist, and she’s trained at the Wilderness Awareness School in Washington.
An important focus of her attention these days is a children’s program she developed three years ago called “Nature Journeys.” It’s a six-week program in which she can draw on her years of experience to help children connect to the natural world.
“We spend lots of time studying the natural history of this area - getting to know our community of life here. That would include bugs, birds, mammals, the forest and plants.
“My job is to find out what kids are interested in and feed that.”
Typically, her groups are small and they meet weekly in Centennial Park where tall grasses, forested areas and Bridge Creek, alive with aquatic life, all provide ecosystems for nature’s treasures.
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Patricia Spencer shares the excitement of finding a grasshopper in Centennial Park with young nature lover Ethan Sikiric.
Photo Arlene Jongbloets
One of their recent forays produced a tiny abandoned bird nest with a couple of pea-sized eggs that instantly ignited excitement and curiosity among the children.
"A boy found it while playing a hiding game. It’s an example of the background things that are happening around us all the time," Spencer says, adding that such a find will really get gears turning in young minds and spark all kinds of questions.
When children pay close attention to their surroundings, she adds, the things they find are amazing, like a food pellet regurgitated by an owl found by another one of her students.
An unanticipated discovery of several spawning kokanee in Bridge Creek also launched a heated round of questions and discussions.
Spencer generally lets her young charges discover their own answers through a method of teaching called coyote teaching. One of its characteristics is the teacher answers the question with more questions, and in doing so, inspires the student to dig deep and search for their own answers.
Spencer says she also works off of the children’s passions, finding the edge of their knowledge and taking it further.
Another technique she likes to use with more advanced students is something she calls "fox walking".
It centres on walking at a slow pace, using forward and peripheral vision and stepping softly so as not to disturb wildlife.
"Most people tend to walk quickly through the bush with their eyes down and they miss a lot. Fox walking is about awareness."
Children love forts and one of the most interesting things Spencer likes to do during Nature Journeys is to build personal survival shelters out of branches and forest debris. She says they serve as a cocoon, keeping people safe from the weather.
Finding an animal track in the soft earth can open up a child’s imagination and have them instantly visualizing what kind of creature could possibly have left it. Spencer sometimes takes plaster-of-paris out on a walk to make casts of prints they find, and often the white nuggets become prized possessions.
She maintains there are many benefits in getting children to go outdoors.
"Kids develop an increased comfort level in nature and develop a joy and wonder about exploring it. It develops respect for themselves and others, and for the natural world.
"Eventually they develop more empathy and after a while, they develop a real caring."
They say not getting out enough into nature is having a bad developmental, educational and emotional effect on children, she adds.
“They spend so much time indoors with technology and we have to balance that. We have to save kids from nature deficit disorder and Nature Journeys is good medicine for that.”
Spencer is also president of the Lower Bridge Creek Watershed Stewardship Society and co-chair of the South Cariboo Sustainability Committee.
© 100 Mile House Free Press