A night out with the Keas

22:42, May 28 2013

Last night I had the privilege of joining my local Kea Scouts for their evening's activities. They asked me to come along to do "nature stuff" with them, and it was a lot of fun, as well as a fantastic trip down memory lane.

Scouting has a proud history in New Zealand, and it's great to go along and see it still alive and kicking even in tiny rural areas like ours.

When I was a kid growing up in the bustling metropolis of Twizel, there were no Girl Guides, so after we gals grew out of Brownies, our only option was to join the Scouts. When my mates and I joined it was controversial in kid circles, and all the boy Scouts promptly quit in protest. However, after a couple of weeks of them missing out on camping competitions, making rafts etc , they were back with a vengeance. Scouts was an awesome opportunity for us to hang out, go camping, meet other kids from nearby areas, and learn all sorts of cool outdoor skills.  

In fact, my Dad even signed up as the Cub Scout leader for a few years, since without an "Akela" they were looking at closing the club. My younger brother and his mates would have missed out, so Dad spent one night a week trying to keep a troupe of noisy eight- to 10-year-old boys engaged in a huge variety of activities. I still remember them promising "A-ke-la, we will do our best!"

I didn't continue my scouting activities beyond Scouts, but I guess I'd caught the bug by then, and spent quite a lot of time hanging out with mates in the outdoors, climbing, camping, and generally just being out and about. No surprises, then, that my first real job out of varsity would be as a ranger for DOC!


So it was lovely to be asked along to the local Keas evening. There are only about five of these high-energy six- and seven-year-olds, but they were neat kids, and we had a great time. Nature was the theme of our evening, so we got busy getting into some wild activities.  

I have to say, while I get asked to do a fair bit of public speaking, it generally doesn't worry me or make me nervous. Thinking of how to keep a handful of excitable young 'uns occupied for an hour made me break out in a sweat!  

Then I remembered that I know exactly what it's like to have a limited attention span, so I tailored my programme to suit!

I thought that some of you might like to know what we did if you were interested in finding ways and activities to engage your young children with nature. So here's the list...

1).  Pine cone bird feeders

I have made these with kids before and they are always a hit. Last night was a great time to make them, since the kids had woken to snow on the ground, giving me a chance to explain that the birds might be cold and in need of extra food.  

You need:

- Pine cones (any size, but preferably those that have started to open).

- Peanut butter, or dripping (and a breadknife)

- Seeds (you can buy wild bird seed at the supermarket, but can easily use seeds you have around the house or even breadcrumbs). Raisins make a nice treat too.

- String (to hang the feeders from a tree).

It's pretty self-explanatory - spread the peanut butter or dripping into the gaps of the pine cone, roll the sticky cone in a tray or container of seeds and attach string to hang from a tree (away from cats and other predators). Kids (young and old - my Mum's a huge birdfeeder fan) will love watching the birds come to take their winter treat.

Local Kea Jordy Trethowen with her pine cone bird feeder.

2). Feely box

This is a great way to get kids to engage with other senses. You can set the context by asking how nocturnal animals like kiwi find things at night - what other senses they might use.  

Get a box that you can put objects in (make the kids close their eyes so they can't see what you're putting in there), and cover it with a cloth or towel. Have the kids put their hands in one by one, and allow them to guess what they think it might be, but make sure they keep their guess to themselves until each child has had a go. Then ask them one by one what they thought it was. Prizes for best guess is an option. Then do it three or four more times with other "natural" objects. We had a paua shell; a huge feather; a leaf; and a large bone from a fur seal ('cos that's the kind of thing I have lying around at home!).

3). Guess the bird calls

There are plenty of bird calls you can download for your phone... I chose a morepork (that one was a bit hard for them, but it helped us explain how this bird is named for the sound it makes). 

As we get HEAPS of fantails around here at this time of year, it took them no time at all to work out what that was. Really great to see them thinking hard and then being chuffed they got it right.

4).  Home-made tracking tunnels

Every kid likes to play detective, right? So what better than creating your own home-made tracking tunnels to work out which animals have been hanging out in your backyard? Forest & Bird's Kiwi Conservation Club is a really neat organisation which has a huge range of things that kids can do when learning about nature. They also have this awesome activity sheet on how to make a tracking tunnel which I took along to the Keas evening.  

If you don't know about tracking tunnels, DOC and community groups use them all the time to determine which animals are frequenting particular areas, and how many there are. It's a simple concept, based on an inkpad in the middle of a tunnel, baited by peanut butter and with two sheets of white paper on each side of the inkpad.  Any animal who heads into the tunnel for the peanut butter will leave footprints on the other side.

These telltale clues are rat prints left behind on tracking tunnel inkpads in Puketi Forest. (Photo: Puketi Forest Trust.)

I've seen some amazing "track pads" from tracking tunnels, usually from possums, hedgehogs, rats, mice and stoats, but I've also seen one where a cat had wriggled through, and still others (from places like Little Barrier Island) where tuatara and giant weta had left their prints behind. Very cool fun indeed.

Sometimes native wildlife stumble into the tracking tunnels, like this baby gecko at Otamahua Quail Island! (Photo: Otamahua Quail Island Trust.)

With no inkpads, we just used food colouring in a plastic container lid with a paper towel over it. (At this point I should apologise profusely to the parents of our local Keas who are no doubt right this minute trying to get blue food colouring off their children's limbs and belongings).

So basically, I had a great night. The kids were full of beans, and right into all the activities. They knew a wee bit, and wanted to know more... I was stoked to be hanging with them.

There's a great deal of research around the world that points to a "Nature deficit disorder" for kids these days, who spend much of their time in front of screens, instead of outdoors. What do you think? Are our kids learning enough about the outdoors these days? Did we have it "better" back then when it comes to exploring our environments? What do you do with your kids to make sure nature is a big part of their life? I can't wait to hear your stories.

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