Candice Davis is the Media Specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation's Southeast and Ozark regions. Though raised to appreciate the Missouri outdoors, Candice is discovering nature on a new and exciting level as she gets up close and personal with snakes, insects, and Southeast Missouri's diverse landscape. Her goal is to share her learning experiences and show Southeast Missourians how they're directly connected to their land.
Know a five year old who can easily identify birds, fish and mammal species? Russell Ludwig of Cape Girardeau can. Russell's parents have brought him to visit the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center at least every other week since he was two years old and he runs through the front door with enthusiasm every time.
With his dad's permission, I recently followed Russell through the Nature Center with my video camera. Russell showed me his favorite exhibits and was eager to share his vast knowledge of wildlife.
"That's a large mouth bass!" he called as he pointed at the correct fish in the large aquarium in the rear of the center. Spotted gar, channel catfish, carp; he named them all with confidence.
He showed me the American toad and its "habitat" and explained that the toad needs shelter, food and water to live. Remember, Russell's only five years old. He named several furbearers, which he cutely called "furberries" and he went on to identify all the birds on the bird identification puzzle in the Nature Center gift shop. He can do the same when he watches the bird feeding area.
Russell was engaging, addressing all the center staff members he saw by name. I couldn't help but notice that he not only had a surprising depth of nature-knowledge, Russell exuded a confidence that likely is a result of being engaged often by his parents and other influential adults. Studies also show that children who experience their natural world on a regular basis have better social skills and display less signs of anxiety or stress.
Russell is a wonderful example of the benefits of hands-on parenting and regular experiences in the natural world. As I watched Russell hurry excitedly through the nature center, I remembered Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods." The book encourages parents and teachers to help children connect with nature. He reports on studies that find children with little nature experience to have a greater risk of developing obesity, depression, anti-social behavior, lack of empathy, and lower language and imaginative skills.
This is obviously not the case with Russell, and it's not the case with many of the young faces we see regularly at the Nature Center. We're fortunate in southeast Missouri to have so many conservation areas and parks where families can explore nature together as they hike, fish, bike ride, bird watch or take part in many other outside activities. For information on programs and events at the Cape Girardeau Conservation Nature Center, go online to mdc.mo.gov or call (573)290-5218. The nature center is open 8 a.m.to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.