Through this blog, we share why we are so passionate about SPLT!

Learning Lessions from Kids

Jay exploring the prairie on Raven’s Nest Nature Preserve with local 5th grade class.






Judith Miller Smith, who leads the 5th grade field trip on Raven’s Nest Nature Preserve each year, provides a geology lesson. Judith, working closely with the local teachers, infuses joy into learning.





Gene & Lynn Monroe exploring Heartland Ranch for invertebrates during BioBlitz.





Liz Goehring & Norm Lewis exploring Heartland Ranch during BioBlitz.

It has been a busy month at SPLT as we have been hosting a variety of visitors to our preserves: schoolchildren and their teachers, artists, authors, historians, self-taught naturalists, and professional scientists. Without any intended slight to our adult guests, who I greatly enjoyed, the schoolchildren were the most important. The reason is simple. If those of us trying to “preserve” or “re-wild” the prairie can’t instill our passions in the next generation, our efforts are ultimately for naught. The future, and thus the fate of the prairie and its residents, belongs to those without gray hair.

Fortunately, our young visitors filled me with hope. The Las Animas elementary school fifth graders arrived on their very last day of school. As their bus bounced up the rutted drive to the historic Penrose school house on our Raven’s Nest Preserve, I couldn’t help but think how interesting it was that our long-abandoned school house was back in business for a day, with the kids arriving by bus instead of horseback or foot. A little apprehensive about the potential behavior of 11-year-olds about to be released for summer vacation, I was immediately surprised by how polite, and sincerely excited, the kids were about exploring the prairie.

Now, as the “Preserve Manager” for SPLT, the Penrose schoolhouse location is a touch embarrassing. Though much of SPLT’s land is in excellent condition, the area around the schoolhouse has a few readily apparent flaws. It was severely overgrazed for years before SPLT acquired it and is overgrown with exotic, invasive plant species: bindweed, kochia, and Russian thistle. It is not, yet, a “restored” prairie ecosystem and may never be perfect. It also appears that the former residents or tenants saved just about every object, appliance, or “someday useful” thing they ever acquired by throwing it in the yard. Though SPLT has removed nearly 800 tires, a roll-off dumpster of scrap metal, three engine blocks, two transmissions, and countless truckloads of other debris from this area, it is still a bit difficult to tell we have “cleaned-up” at all. However, the kids didn’t see any of these “problems” which are so frustrating to a preserve manager. Where I see bindweed, they see pretty, purple and white flowers, and where I see junk, they see interesting old stuff providing hiding places for lizards and insects they might discover.

They say knowledge is power, but it is also pain. We adults know what is missing from the prairie, what we have lost: the vast herds of bison, the prairie elk, and the wolves and grizzlies that trailed them, the cottonwoods and willows along the streams, and the beaver that dammed them. We know about these losses and many of us are saddened by them. Once you learn that every other plant you are looking at is an import from Eurasia that is crowding out native species, it bothers you. Yet, kids don’t see or feel these things. They see flowers, and look for what might be hiding in the petals. They don’t care if it is a “weed” or not. By and large, kids just see the world as it is right now, and take joy in it, without worrying about what is missing or what is “unnatural.”

It is a refreshing perspective and I quickly found myself exclaiming with excitement, just like the kids, over the discovery of horned lizards hiding among invasive Asian grasses and bird nests in trees native to Mongolia. We adults worry too much about the “imperfections” in our preservation of nature and risk forgetting that nature doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyed. The kids reminded me to focus on how much left on the prairie and how much is right in nature, rather on what is gone or wrong. Nature doesn’t exist only in pristine natural parks or wilderness areas. It exists next to an abandoned school house with a bunch of junk in the yard. Either way, we should enjoy it. Even though we are still trying our best to return our prairie to pre-Columbian conditions, simply preserving what is here right now is a very worthy goal. It is a place for kids to have fun.

Our “older” visitors, the artists, historians, and scientists, taught me the same thing as the school children in a different way, and using much more complicated, occasionally Latin, words. Though these adult “professionals” certainly know what is missing, lost, or wrong with the prairie, they found a lot to be excited about on SPLT’s lands. They are basically kids who never grew up and never stopped wondering, “hey, what can I make out of this junk,” “who has been here before me and what were they doing,” or “what animals or plants can I find in that pile of rocks?” Indeed, based on my observations, when released onto the prairie, scientists and schoolchildren do pretty much the same thing: run around and see what they can find. And in that there is the hope, that some of our young visitors won’t grow up and forget how much fun it is just to have a place to explore. Rather, they will become the next generation of artists, authors, historians, self-taught naturalists, and scientists striving to understand, explain, enjoy, and most importantly, preserve our prairie – long after we folks with gray hair are gone.

–Jay Tutchton, SPLT Preserve Manager, June 22, 2017