Fifth- and sixth-graders from low-income schools hike along a rocky trail as part of their weeklong
Nature Quest experience at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. (USFWS)
This summer, for the third time
in as many years, Wichita
Mountains Wildlife Refuge in
Oklahoma led 60 fifth- and sixth-graders
from economically disadvantaged schools
on a weeklong outdoors adventure known
as Nature Quest.
"A lot of these kids have never slept
outside overnight, much less heard a
coyote," says Quinton Smith, a park
ranger at the refuge. "You basically
spend Monday and Tuesday building
trust, so they are ready for the campout."
But by weeks end, the students30
boys and 30 girls randomly selected from
Title I (low-income) schoolshad hiked
for miles on the refuge known for its
scrub oak forest, rocky mountains and
grassy prairie; had seen American bison
and collared lizards in the wild; had tried
their luck with a cane fishing pole; and
had used binoculars to identify canyon
wrens and other birds among the 240
avian species that thrive on the refuge.
Heres how it worked.
The children were divided into six groups
of 10. Each group was paired with two
teachers and two high school students
who served as mentors. On the first two
days, the childrenmany of whom had
no experience with camping or naturetoured the refuge and learned about
wildlife conservation, leaving no trace,
healthy lifestyles and safety. The idea
was to create bonds among all involved.
On Wednesday, the children hiked nearly
three miles to a campground, where
they pitched tents that would be their
homes for the next two nights. The hike
presented opportunities for education
and interpretation, but it also instilled in
the youngsters a sense of achievement.
Smith recalls one Nature Quest child
who finished the hike 90 minutes behind
"He was short and chubby. He had
new shoes that hurt his feet, so hed
stop and take them off while everyone
else moved on," says Smith. "He never
complained and never quit trying. Seeing
his determination and the self-fulfillment
was really amazing."
On Thursday, the children learned to fish
and practiced archery skills during the
day and at night had typical outdoors
funcamp fires, smores, storytelling
and even occasional hikes.
"Different kids enjoy different
programs," says Smith. Take the birding
program. "Some moved on, but others
youd see following the biologist around
all week with a bird book in hand."
Smith attributes much of Nature Quests
success to the teachers and mentors, who
receive one day of training beforehand.
"Having teachers and mentors lead the
groups makes the difference. Teachers
know how to work with children, and
the kids can relate to the mentors,"
says Smith. An added benefit is that
the teachers and mentors "love this
program, and they take what theyve
learned back to their classrooms,
families and friends."
Smith says partners play a vital role
in the success of Nature Quest, which,
in addition to wildlife conservation,
focuses on hiking as a way for kids to
stay physically active. One partner,
Southwest Oklahoma Fit Kids Coalition,
conducted classes promoting healthy
lifestyles. Help also came from the
public school system in nearby Lawton,
OK, and a local Job Corps Center
that donated and prepared meals. The
Friends of the Wichitas volunteered and
provided food for all participants.
Wichita Mountains Refuge staff members
strongly believe in Nature Quest, Smith
says, "because we know some of these
kids come from really challenging
circumstances" and connecting with
nature can make a difference.
"My favorite part was making friends
and probably the three-mile hike and
night hikes" says fifth-grader Hunter
Anderson, a first-time participant. "We
saw a snake, and it was cool."
"We saw a turtle that had just laid her
eggs," she adds. "They were white with
brown spots, kind of brown things. I had
never seen turtle eggs in my real life."
Nancy C. Brown is a Service public
outreach specialist for Oklahoma
and Texas. Refuges interested in
information about starting their own
Nature Quest program may contact
Quinton_Smith@fws.gov at Wichita
Mountains Wildlife Refuge.