photo of Puddles the Blue Goose in a classroom full of students
Puddles the Blue Goose leads Barrett Elementary School students in a rendition of "Rock the Refuge," a song written for the school’s year-long project studying national wildlife refuges. (Elizabeth Rente)

Second-grader Audrey Vizard knows all about national wildlife refuges.

"They’re places where animals can live and be protected," she says. "I think they are very happy there, and that makes me happy."

Protecting plants and animals is important, agrees Toni Birnett, a fourthgrader. "We need them for us to survive."

Fifth-grader Grace Goldman loves animals, too. But, for her, the best part about refuges is the chance to be in nature. "I like digging in the dirt and holding worms," she says.

Audrey, Toni and Grace, all students at Barrett Elementary School in Arlington, VA, will be exploring refuges in-depth this school year as part of a schoolwide initiative to expose youngsters to the outdoors and a commitment by the Refuge System to engage the next generation of conservationists.

The initiative is the brainchild of teacher Laurie Sullivan, who approached the Refuge System for curriculum advice last winter and ultimately procured a $10,000 funding grant through the Toyota TAPESTRY Program.

"We’ve all been hearing for the past several years about the ’last child in the woods’ and kids spending less time outdoors in nature and more time indoors playing video games and watching TV," says Sullivan, who oversees Barrett’s Discovery Lab, where the students delve deeply into topics such as NASA, engineering and now nature.

Plans for this school year include visits to three refuges—Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland, and Occoquan Bay and Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck Refuges in Virginia. Twenty students with strong academic and leadership skills will visit Mason Neck in the fall, in part to help plan activities for the rest of the school, Sullivan says, suggesting that a digital scavenger hunt is a possibility.

Then in spring, the entire third-, fourthand fifth-grade classes—about 250 children—will visit a refuge. Children in kindergarten through second grade will explore natural areas closer to the school with the likelihood of visiting refuges as they get older and the project evolves.

The overarching theme will be to see how birds and trees change with the seasons, Sullivan says. Because most of the students will be visiting the refuges only once, the project will include visits to parks and instruction in the school’s outdoor garden and Discovery Lab, too. Families also will be encouraged to go on weekend nature outings.

"Life-Changing Experience"

Although details of the refuge visits still are being worked out, activities that traditionally are a big hit with kids likely will be included.

At Mason Neck and Occoquan Bay Refuges, part of Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex, park rangerintern Patricia Wood says that using "scat and tracks" is one way to draw in elementary-age students. "It’s really about going out and seeing what the animal has left behind."

At Patuxent Refuge, an electric tram takes visitors through forest, wetland and meadow habitats, and at Occoquan Bay Refuge a songbird banding station allows kids to hold the birds while volunteers apply bands. "For a kid to hold a bird like that and feel its heartbeat—that’s a life-changing experience and the kind of impression we’re trying to make," says Marty McClevey, also a ranger at Potomac River Refuge Complex.

The Toyota TAPESTRY grant will cover most project expenses, including digital cameras for the kids, bus trips to the refuges, laptops and child-size work gloves.

As much as the school wants to limit screen time, the goal is not to discourage kids’ interest in technology entirely. In fact, Sullivan says, the students’ final projects could include a music video, a documentary film, an oral report with video images—or even a fine-art painting.

Jennifer Anderson is a frequent contributor to Refuge Update.

To learn more about the Barrett Elementary School project, visit http://tinyurl—com/BarrettNature or http://tinyurl—com/BarrettNatureFacebook. To see a pep rally at which the students perform "Rock the Refuge," a song written for the project, go to www.YouTube—com/BarrettNature. For information on Toyota TAPESTRY grants, visit