Ambling through a foggy forest, a group of children gathered sticks and pine boughs on Feb. 20 on Sears Island, working together to build a simple shelter. Under the guidance of three educators, they selected a spot by a bubbling brook, then assembled their natural materials into a lean-to that could protect them from the cold rain and salty ocean breeze.
“Come on, Cali! Follow me!” 8-year-old Capri said to her sister as she picked up the front end of an especially large tree limb and started dragging it to the build site.
Cali scrambled after her big sister, picking up the back end of the branch with both of her mittened hands. Together, they fitted the wood into roof of the structure, then sat down on the carpet of evergreen boughs underneath and took a break.
The after-school program, running 1 to 3 p.m., was the second in a new monthly series called Science Squad, organized by Friends of Sears Island. Designed for children ages 6-12, the program will has a different theme each month, and is limited to 12 students and their parents or guardians.
“The main goal is to get kids out exploring, just to be out in nature in their local environment and learning how to be stewards of that environment,” said Ashley Megquier, outreach coordinator for Friends of Sears Island.
The program was recently funded by a $6,750 grant by the Davis Conservation Foundation, which pays for supplies, such as bug nets and craft supplies, and funds the work of the program’s organizers.
Despite the dreary weather on Feb. 20, the program was full. And several younger participants were in attendance because the particular topic — winter survival — presented activities for all ages.
The youngest participant, 2-year-old Draven Bair of Searsport, joined his four older siblings at the program, chaperoned by their parents. He managed to keep up with the big kids as they tramped through the sticky snow, searching for animal tracks and natural materials for their lean-to.
“This is educational, and it’s fun for them,” said his mother, Melissa Bair of Searsport, who homeschools her five children and sees community events like Science Squad as an opportunity for her children to get out and meet other children while learning new skills. “They love all the activities. They’re actually trying to build a shelter out of snow at home right now. They love to spend time outdoors.”
As Bair spoke, her 7-year-old son Logan Bair walked up to show her an inchworm creeping across his mitten. He then used the magnifying glass that he’d received at the beginning of the program to look more closely at the insect, which he’d found dangling from a nearby tree.
Funding for the program lasts through next December. Until that time, Science Squad will run once a month when school is in session, with a brief hiatus for summer vacation. However, Megquier plans to continue organizing kid-friendly public events on the island throughout the summer independent of the Science Squad program.
“We’re piloting this, and if it’s really successful, then hopefully we’ll find another way to fund it [moving forward] and maybe expand it,” Megquier said.
Sears Island serves as the outdoor classroom for program. Connected to Searsport by a causeway, the 940-acre island at the head of Penobscot Bay has rich natural and cultural histories.
In 2009, after years of negotiations, approximately two-thirds of the island was conserved in perpetuity by the state of Maine, and that year, the nonprofit group Friends of Sears Island accepted responsibility for its stewardship in partnership with Maine Coast Heritage Trust.
The Waldo County Soil and Water Conservation District also has been heavily involved in mapping and documenting the island, and the district partnered with Friends of Sears Island to organize the Science Squad and other citizen science programs.
“Where we’re basically getting people of all ages to get out here and observe, record their observations of nature so we can basically get a baseline going of the biodiversity of the island,” said Aleta McKeage, technical director for the Waldo County Soil and Water Conservation District. “So it all fits a very big picture.”
Many of the Science Squad programs will align with nationwide citizen science projects, such as FrogWatch USA, which involves communities around the country reporting on the calls of local frogs and toads, and the Monarch Watch tagging program to track monarch butterflies across the United States.
But for the wintertime, when citizen science projects are scarce, Science Squad organizers thought winter survival would be a great topic for children of all ages.
“It’s kind of a lost skill,” said Nick Pottle of Swanville, a former U.S. Special Forces soldier who was helped lead the winter survival program with his mother, Serena Cole of Stockton Springs, a retired high school science teacher. “Everybody wants to go hiking nowadays, but so few know about outdoor survival if something goes wrong.”
In addition to building a lean-to, the children learned about the other necessities of outdoor survival, including finding fresh water and food, building a fire and staying warm.
“I learned a team is better than just one,” Capri said as she walked along the icy island road back to the causeway at the end of the program. “I didn’t get any of the sticks [for the lean-to], the kids just laid them in a pile and I put them on.”
The next Science Squad program, scheduled for March, will be about detecting signs of spring on the island, and the following program will be a beach clean up to coincide with Earth Day using the CleanSwell mobile app to record what type of trash they collect from the island for a database being kept by the Ocean Conservancy.
“As a parent myself, I’m really excited to see more kids programs taking off on the island,” Megquier said. “It’s been one of the things I wanted to do since I started working for Friends of Sears Island.”
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