In this August 2011 file photo, Abigail Kohlstrom, 4, of Camden runs out of the marshy area where she was looking for frogswith a group of home-schooled children during Raylene Hunt's (top) weekly home-school nature study group at her Camden home. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

By Jodi Hersey

This story originally appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Bangor Metro.

“Mom, quick, come look what I found!” are the words I’ve so often heard from my kids as we begin our own sort of magical school bus adventure in the backyard.

The Magic School Bus TV series, which was popular in the 90s and early 2000s, followed a fictitious elementary school teacher and her students who’d hop on a yellow bus to go on magical field trips. However, my twin eight-year-old boys have shown me, time and again, they don’t need magic to experience a wondrous journey in the great outdoors. My kids are natural explorers.

There’s no better classroom than Mother Nature. They love to be outside looking at insects, reptiles or wandering along the nature trails in Maine where they always seem to find a memento or two to remember their adventure.

“That’s the neat thing about being out in nature. It’s always a different experience depending on the weather, the time of day, or the season. It’s always changing,” David Lamon, the manager of the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden said. “You don’t have to be an expert. You just have to be curious.”

I’ve seen firsthand how inquisitive kids can be. They hear, see, feel and smell all the wonders that exist just outside their back door that some of us adults overlook. In a small stream of water that runs between our home and my neighbor’s property, my boys have witnessed the entire lifecycle of frogs as they go from eggs to tadpoles, then to froglets and finally into frogs.

“I see two, no, three frogs today,” my son Donnie announced on one day outside.

“No look over here, there’s another one right there,” his brother Frankie pointed out.

Their excitement over the biology unfolding before their very eyes could hardly be contained as they shared their discovery with other neighborhood playmates, who then returned to their own homes to go frog hunting.

“It doesn’t take much for kids to get engaged and hooked,” Lamon said.

My kids have also found toads, several snakes and a painted turtle in our yard. However, if you are like me and reptiles give you the willies, there are plenty of other learning opportunities that don’t involve things that hop, slither or crawl.

That’s why I contacted Lamon at the Fields Pond Audubon Center where there is an Explorers Club for children and their families that meets every week ($12/family for members; $15/family for non-members). I was looking for some helpful ways to redirect my boys’ attention away from all the critters so they could see the other wonders in nature.

“Some of my favorite activities are ones that lead to a teachable moment,” Lamon said. “An easy thing for a parent to do is get paint strips from a paint store. You might have some lying around or you can use construction paper and cut them into squares until you have a dozen colors. Then tell the kids, ‘We are going to go hike this trail today and I want you to match each of these paint chips with something in nature.’ By doing that, they are going to discover other neat things.”

Exploring the Bangor City Forest, Chick Hill in Clifton or walking the trails at the Fields Pond Audubon Center can be a great and inexpensive adventure. We’ve enjoyed many of these outings and often return home with pinecones, acorns, bird feathers or some beautifully painted rocks made by volunteers from the Bangor Rocks, Brewer Rocks or Hermon Rocks communities. It’s simply amazing these volunteer groups spend their precious time decorating rocks and planting them in various locations in an effort to spread joy and bring smiles to people’s faces.

“Another thing to do with kids is take a piece of cardboard and cut it to look like a picture frame. Tell them it’s their camera and have them take three pictures that are zoomed in really close and three really far away pictures. Then I look through their picture frame so they can show me what they were paying attention to,” Lamon said. “It’s just a vehicle to get them to look more closely at what’s around them.”

Textbooks, notepads and technology are not required to explore, see new things and learn all year round, although they could be beneficial when trying to identify different things you find outdoors.

“Obviously we have more insects in the summer and there will be more butterfly species around. Kids like differentiating between a monarch butterfly and a checkerspot. With that, they can use an app called iNaturalist. If you snap a picture of something and put it on iNaturalist, it will do the identification for you or someone on iNaturalist will do it for you,” Lamon said. “Also, if you have a bird feeder at home, kids can keep a journal, draw pictures or categorize the different birds that show up at your feeder.”

So grab some bug spray, sun block and lots of water, and head outdoors to enjoy, participate and learn from the magical adventure that exists in your own backyard.