Sustainable Missoula: ‘Field trip month’ soothes the soul, instills value of stewardship

Fourth-graders practice their skills using binoculars and get a close-up look at a bird on a field trip at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. (Montana Natural History Center)

October is field trip month at the Montana Natural History Center.

That means that our staff naturalists spend almost every weekday outside with fourth- and fifth-grade students at places like Kelly Island and Council Grove State Park and Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.

It means that all 1,700 students who participate in our Visiting Naturalist in the Schools program get to spend a day outside, learning about bugs and birds, scat and squirrel middens.

They watch wildlife through binoculars and spotting scopes. They walk quietly, listening for bird song, rustles in the underbrush, or just the sound of the wind.

Seeing kids out in nature is inspiring. In a world where most of us spend hours a day in front of screens, it’s deeply satisfying to see a group of kids get excited about a tuft of deer hair caught on a branch, or hear them exclaim at the sight of a black-capped chickadee or a pileated woodpecker.

One of the field trip stations is a professor hike, in which each student studies a particular subject (ponderosa pine, riparian habitat, lichen, beavers), then shares what she learned with the rest of the group.

Another station focuses on adaptation, examining things like ducks’ webbed feet (good for swimming!) and curved grizzly bear claws (ideal for digging roots!). And on the wildlife hike, the kids look for animals and animal sign, learning to spot a flash of fur or feathers, tracks in the mud, scratch marks on trees.

This is where stewardship begins.

When kids thrill at the sight of a great blue heron or revel at the intricate structure of lichen, they’re experiencing in a very tangible way the value of our wild places and wild creatures. And we hope that experience inspires not only a new appreciation and understanding of nature, but a lifetime of stewarding it.

A student spends a quiet moment studying up on fallen logs during the professor hike station, preparing to teach his classmates about their importance to the ecosystem. (Montana Natural History Center)

So while we at the Montana Natural History Center are committed to teaching people of all ages about the natural world, we especially love getting kids outside and learning about their place.

One young woman, now a teenager, was so inspired by what she learned in the Visiting Naturalist program that she now dreams of a career in ornithology. Other kids are taking their parents and siblings to the local natural areas that they first visited on their field trips.

And all of the kids are getting a taste of the diversity of our western Montana flora and fauna, along with a sense of how important that diversity is, and how it’s worth preserving.

This gives me hope. Hope that is much needed at a time when there is so much divisiveness, and the challenges of climate change and species extinction and pollution (and so much more) seem overpowering. So I’m grateful for the month of October and the hundreds of kids who are getting outside and connecting with their place.

These young people: our next generation of stewards.

Allison De Jong is the communications coordinator and editor of Montana Naturalist magazine at the Montana Natural History Center.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

October 12-13: Faith, Science and Climate Action Conference. The Emerson Center, 111 S Grand Ave, Bozeman.

October 15. Open Space: yes or no. City Club Missoula. 11:30am – 1 p.m. Double Tree Hotel.  

October 20: Missoula’s Clean Energy Expo, Caras Park Pavilion, 11am-3pm. Climate Smart Missoula and partners. Family-friendly, free and open to the public.

October 21: 23rd Annual Pumpkin Run – Proceeds will go towards energy efficiency measures at the new Missoula Public Library.

October 26-28. AERO EXPO in Missoula.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for the upcoming months HERE.