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Keeping It Natural: Sunriver program offers kids a chance to become outdoor ambassadors

The Junior Naturalist Program is designed to place Nature at the forefront of a child's world and Jennifer and her team of naturalists make it work slicker than hair on a toad's belly.



If you would like to see your children interested in something other than TV and spacing out on computer games, then involve them in the Natural World—not only will they have a wonderful time, but they'll learn a great deal and may even have less mass to their posterior.

What? You don't know how to do that...? And you think huntin' and fishin' is enough? Then talk to Jennifer Curtiss, lead naturalist and coordinator for the Junior Naturalist Program at the Sunriver Nature Center and Observatory (SNCO).


The Junior Naturalist Program is designed to place Nature at the forefront of a child's world and Jennifer and her team of naturalists make it work slicker than hair on a toad's belly. It starts with an introduction to the natural world around them, then the children go to work (literally) learning hands on about the wildlife in the Nature Center's rehab facility. When a child shows an interest in a given area, he or she is guided by the staff and go at his or her own pace.

Once the children begin to master the learning process and subject of their choice, they are split into teams. When a team has reached the point where they have a high level of understanding of the subject, the team members are offered the opportunity to go out into the world and teach what they've learned.

Yes, you read it correctly; if their interest is in birds of prey, they are supplied with learning props, posters, feathers from various raptors, field guides, binoculars, tables and chairs and their mentor (usually Jennifer) takes them to a variety of locations around Sunriver to put on their dog-and-pony show.

One day the children may be at the Sunriver Lodge, answering questions about raptors—and also asking questions about raptors—to help guests and residents of Sunriver better understand their place in the World of Nature. The next day, they might be at Fort Rock Park on the northern end of the development or the Village Green. At each place, the children gain new friends; the nature center and observatory gain new friends, and many more people have a better understanding of the Nature of Central Oregon.

The program has evolved over the years to become mutually beneficial for SNCO and participants. Parents play an active role in supporting the young naturalists and trained staff guides the would-be naturalists toward meaningful projects.

By tasking the parent-child teams with learning topics and disseminating information, the kids feel a sense of achievement and ownership of something that contributes to the greater good of their community.  That sense of confidence and accomplishment is imperative for young minds. The Junior Naturalist Program isn't day-care, it's meaningful time spent preparing America's youth to do greater things.

An example of how the Junior Naturalist Program works is illustrated by Rachel and her sister, Sophie, pictured below with Hootie, the Western Screech Owl.

"Over the course of the summer of 2011, Rachel and Sophie visited the Nature Center often, and decided to adopt the centers' resident Western screech owl, which they named “Hootie.” Hootie was struck by a car when he was young and suffers from minor brain injury and a permanently injured shoulder. Unfortunately, these injuries render him un-releasable, but make him a perfect “education bird.

"The girls spent much of their summer vacation finding ways to generate and donate as much money as possible to the injured bird, including their birthday money, allowance,and even sold their bikes to contribute to the little owl's cause,” Curtiss said.  "Rachel and Sophie also spent many hours 'in the field,' going door-to-door and setting up goodie and lemonade stands. During the summers of 2011 and 2012, they donated around $350 to the Nature Center and are still working to achieve their goal of $500.”

The sisters were recently recognized for their efforts at an Owl Prowl program and in an article published in Sunriver’s local newspaper.

"The girls interacted brilliantly with the public, answering questions in a clear and respectful manner about the topics they had diligently researched,” Curtiss added. “They and their team took Hootie along with biofacts to local venues, bringing nature to the public and encouraging them to visit the Nature Center.”

Their efforts weren’t just limited to Hootie. The girls volunteered to serve as team leaders for the annual Toad Patrol, helping thousands of baby Western toads migrate from Lake Aspen toward the meadows on the other side of the road.

"Their dedication was outstanding,” Curtiss said. “From four teams, they were chosen to head up a Birds of Prey educational table along our annual Family Adventure Walk. They were a BIG hit. The Nature Center board, volunteers and the public were very impressed with them,” Curtiss added.

"Sophie and Rachel are bright young girls and, guided by their very supportive family, they have a huge jump-start on their academic success and future careers."

The Junior Naturalist Program is offered every summer for free at the Sunriver Nature Center.  If anyone is interested in further information, Jennifer may be contacted at 541-593-4394.

Photo taken by Sue Anderson

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