photo of school children hiking on a rocky trail
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 week’s end, the students—30 boys and 30 girls randomly selected from Title I (low-income) schools—had 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.

Here’s 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 children—many of whom had no experience with camping or nature—toured 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 the others.

"He was short and chubby. He had new shoes that hurt his feet, so he’d 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 fun—camp fires, s’mores, storytelling and even occasional hikes.

"Different kids enjoy different programs," says Smith. Take the birding program. "Some moved on, but others you’d see following the biologist around all week with a bird book in hand."

Smith attributes much of Nature Quest’s 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 they’ve 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 at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge.