"Holy cow, look at that!" the fifth-grader said, excited at catching a glimpse of yet another creature - a Schwarzenegger of an ant - during a nature hike on Salt Lake City's fringe.
He and other students from Sandy's Park Lane Elementary School got a chance to test their observational skills on a lovely spring day above the University of Utah's Red Butte Garden.On a morning walk in the foothills and under the tutelage of Stuart McCandless, the garden's field instructor, a dozen children led by teacher Lynne Presley were encouraged to reach out with all of their senses. As a result, they paid enthusiastic attention to plants, insects and animals they otherwise would have ignored had they simply come across them on a doorstep or sped by them on a drive to Grandma's.
Red Butte hosts about 7,000 students each year, mostly in the elementary grades, said Adrienne Cachelin, manager of natural science education. She, McCandless and volunteer naturalists escort kids through the gardens and onto the hillsides east of the city, helping them think about how life has adapted to the environment there: the dry places, the wet ones, in the heat of summer and the cold of winter.
The program, tailored to the state science curriculum for each grade, is so popular, Cachelin said, "we actually have to turn away some school groups." The organizers try to limit each nature walk to 12 to 14 students per leader. Any more than that and the impact is diminished, as the children get less of a chance to hear or participate in the outdoor lesson. "It makes a big difference with even a couple more kids," she said.
A Jordan School District bus delivered a few dozen Park Lane 10- and 11-year-olds to Red Butte, on the university's southeastern flank. They were divided into groups of 12 or so, each with a naturalist guide.
"What are you going to see here?" McCandless asked as his little troop headed up a trail above the cultivated gardens.
"Squirrels!" said a boy. "Snakes!" said another child. And "Flowers!" "Trees!" and "Birds!"
Obviously, the kids had their eyes and their minds open to the trek's possibilities.
After passing around trail maps and instructional key sheets listing some of the plants around them, McCandless soon had the students scrutinizing - and sensing - the natural world around them.
They used their eyes, for the instructor wanted them to identify specific trees and shrubs.
"You've got a hard task in front of you," McCandless said, stopping along the trail. "I want you to find out what kind of plant this is."
The children referred to their printed key - native shrubs listed on one side, along with clues and characteristics, with trees described on the other. McCandless discussed "alternate' (not arranged straight across from each other) and "opposite" (straight across) leaves and branches, as well as lobes and leafy colors.
Then they used their noses.
"I want you to get down and smell this plant," he said. The kids did and decided, upon referring to their printout, that this was sagebrush, which has a strong scent.
McCandless pointed to a small boisterous bird, a rufus-sided towhee twittering on a bare branch, calling for a mate. How did he notice it?
He used his ears.
"I heard it first," he said, then was able to locate the bird by sight.
They got good looks at tiny blue-petaled forget-me-nots, willow twigs growing in shady wet spots and a dead tree that has been a home for many bugs - and a commissary for woodpeckers. They caught sight of two songbirds, blue-gray gnatcatchers, examined the sharp quills of a deceased porcupine and considered what a coyote might like to eat.
They used their own sense of taste.
McCandless had a few of the kids nibble a dandelion leaf. "Ever heard of a dandelion salad?" he asked. "Some people find it's a little bitter." Minutes later they sniffed a sprig of wild onion, and he hinted it would be a nice addition to the salad - with a little dressing.
He paired up the students, had them analyze a prominent shrub and declared a contest: The first team to identify it correctly would be the winner; naming the wrong species would lead to disqualification. Mike Mecham and Parker Morgan had an answer very quickly.
"Is it gambel oak?" they offered quietly, wary of losing. But they were right.
The children used hands and fingers to touch several plants.
"Sometimes you can tell what a plant is by what it is shaped like," McCandless said. "What is this like?" he asked as the trekkers emerged onto an open hillside sprinkled with golden flowers. An arrow, several children said.
"Right!" McCandless replied. "This is arrowleaf balsamroot." He encouraged them to touch the leaves.
"It feels like my dog's ears," Briana Coyle announced.
Children and adults headed downhill, off the dry hillside and toward gurgling Red Butte Creek. The moist environment encouraged more vegetation and insects, including slugs and snails. "They definitely like it where it's wet," McCandless said. He pointed out beadlike clusters on many branches; these were galls, he said, homes for larvae that would eventually develop into a kind of wasp.
But the big discovery of the morning was that the cicadas were emerging - shucking off old exoskeletons and spreading new wings. In several instances, the discarded shells, still gripping a branch or tree trunk, were right next to the adult cicadas.
"He's just come out of there," McCandless said of a lima bean-green cicada as the children gathered round. "He's waiting for his wings to harden and dry."
McCandless said he's heard that cicadas can stay in the ground for up to 14 years before emerging to adulthood.
"You mean," Briana said, "it's older than we are?!"
"Yes, I guess that's true," McCandless said. He couldn't help but smile.