Through the Eyes of an Environmental Educator
By Summer Swallow, Environmental Educator
My name is Summer Swallow, and I never expected I’d become a teacher. Now that I am one, I can’t imagine doing anything else. When you’re an environmental educator, every day is an adventure. Especially when one is fortunate enough to have a classroom like Pepperwood, a 3,200-acre expanse of land that is perpetually ripe for exploration. Yet, what I love most about teaching is that whether I’m working with second graders or grandparents (or anyone in between), I am always learning something from my students.
Our community of learners at Pepperwood constantly keep me on my toes. Imagine this: we’re walking along the Ono Shi trail, and a garter snake slithers across the path and into the grass, catching the eye of several 4th grade SCENIQ students. Calmly pointing to this reptile friend, one student matter-of-factly shares with us “did you know that snakes overwinter underground.” For the rest of our hike, holes in the ground take on a whole new and intriguing meaning for the entire group.
Another day, at Pepperwood Creek with a TeenNat alumni group, a TeenNat youth asks, “how old are the rocks in this creek?” What a brilliant question, as I mentally thumb through my geology notes. Not wanting to take their question for ‘granite,’ I reply “That’s a great research question we can look up. While we’re standing here, what do you notice about these rocks and the surrounding landscape?”
On another hike with a 3rd grade SCENIQ class, students excitedly point out a blue-belly lizard, “why is it doing push-ups?” Have you ever seen this and wondered what they are doing? “Hmm, perhaps it’s an arms day, and they are working on their biceps,” I say. Later I’ll reveal that there are a few known options: it might be a mating display, or it could be territorial performance as they guard their favorite sunning spot.
On a recent Saturday morning, I posed questions to the adult participants of our UCANR California Naturalist certification course:
Why are plants essential to life?
What is conifer encroachment? How can this impact ecosystem health?
Why is stewarding native perennial grasslands important?”
These are big questions with a myriad of potential answers and perspectives. Questions like these spark deep conversations, bouts of wonder, and precious moments of connection with the natural world that sustains us.
The common thread for each of these different age groups and audiences, is the encouragement of noticing and wondering. I believe what’s most important is shifting one’s focus towards the process of discovering, rather than the discovery itself. Each of us are curious observers and knowledge-holders. As an environmental educator I strive to encourage this kind of inquiry, and empower a learner’s inner scientist to come out and play.
Wild Wonders: Inspiring Virtual Connections With Nature
It was difficult to connect our community with the natural world when in 2020 and much of 2021 we weren’t able to have in-person gatherings at the preserve. But it is essential to maintain our connection with nature, regardless of our age, because we are a part of our natural world.
As outdoor educators, my team and I knew that getting outside – whether in an urban concrete-oriented setting or deep in a regional park – was vital to maintaining the physical and mental health for our community. That’s why I embarked upon the novel quest of bringing nature to our community, no matter where they were. This resulted in the creation of the virtual outdoor excursions that became Pepperwood’s Wild Wonders video series (now in Spanish too – Las Maravillas Naturales)!
My goal was to provide inspiration for folks to get outside, slow down, and observe. Because nature is literally all around us. Unconvinced? Go for an early morning walk and marvel at the dew sparkling on spiderwebs. Step into afternoon sunlight and watch a huge variety of insects buzzing about their daily tasks. Check those forgotten corners of your closet or bathroom and see spiders helping to remove unwanted insects from your home.
While these may not be the glorious, romanticized images of nature that we see in documentaries, these are our local workhorses. From banana slugs, turkey vultures and fungi – the rockstars of nature’s cleanup crew, to toyon and leather oak – provisioners of precious food for animals in our chaparral habitats; every plant, fungi, and animal has a unique role or niche to fulfill, which contributes to the diverse tapestry of life.
Wild Wonders were even used to supplement the curriculum for local elementary school students when field trips weren’t possible. Nowadays, teachers tell me I’m famous in their classroom! Imagine my surprise in this latest turn in my career path. Never did I think I would create YouTube videos, let alone be recognized for it. But innovation is often a product of adversity and need. We humans are animals and we need a steady dose of nature time just as we need clean water, fresh air and nutritious food.
So as you engage in the daily hustle and bustle of life, remember to slow down and tune back into nature. And if you can’t get outside, take a stretch break and check out an episode of Wild Wonders on our YouTube channel!