Flipping Over Rocks To See What's Crawling Beneath Is How Taiji Nelson Teaches Teens To Love Nature

Jul 24, 2017

Six Pittsburgh students are spending their summer learning about the plants and animals in Frick Park and how to protect them with erosion control and managing invasive species. 

Students working in the Young Naturalist program don’t typically have access to nature. 

90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider spoke with Taiji Nelson, a naturalist educator with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, about teaching kids to be park stewards. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

SARAH SCHNEIDER: So the idea of the young naturals program is to teach kids early to appreciate the environment so it will follow them into adulthood. How do you do that?

TAIJI NELSON: The young naturalist program started because of our school program High School Eco Stewards. We partnered with eight different schools. Half of the kids are just kind there maybe because they want to get out of class - they like stretching their legs. The other half of the kids maybe they're really into it. They like it. But there really was a handful of kids in each of those school groups that really geeked out about nature or about using the tools and being really physical outside and they wanted more. Teen years are really when you start self-identifying your own path in life, so you want to let kids know that nature could be that thing for them they find personal and professional fulfillment.

Young Naturalists install a bat box at the Frick Environmental Center in Frick Park.
Credit Taiji Nelson / Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

SCHNEIDER: What reactions have kids had to learning or discovering something new outside? Has anything ever surprised you?

NELSON: One of my favorite things to do is just to turn over rocks and logs (with them). You never know what you're going to find. It's always kind of a surprise. And when you find the creepy crawlies, centipedes, slugs, snakes, or salamanders, really, you get a wide range of experiences. I mean some of the kids, they're grossed out and that's OK because centipedes are kind of gross. But as an educator, I'm there to kind of help them walk through these different stages. When you turn over a log and find a centipede, your first response may be, 'Gross. I want to step on this,' but to be there and be a person who's like, 'Wait, this is interesting if you look closely,' here are some things you might not notice.

SCHNEIDER: How did you get into this? Were you interested in nature as a kid?

NELSON: I grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania in a tiny town called Warren. In these kinds of tiny towns, nature is all around you. You can't help but have it in your face and it's just a part of your life. And I was always hanging out in the back woods behind my house. And now that I live in the city, I'm really interested in figuring out how can I make sure that kids have that opportunity. So how do I make sure that nature has a fighting chance when there is so much jockeying for students attention? There's a lot of stuff going on if you're into music, there's a ton of programs in Pittsburgh. But I think nature kind of gets drowned out. I think everybody's got a stake in it with environmental issues. And the issues are impacting those of us who are nature geeks, well they're (also) going to impact you one way or another.