MAKE YOUR NEXT BIRTHDAY PARTY ABOUT ECOLOGY

by Whit Gibbons


March 18, 2007


I received an email from a mother the other day saying, "My son Thomas must have said ten times, 'that was an awesome party!'"

Unlike politicians, four-year-olds do not know how to dissemble, so I took Thomas's statement at face value. Furthermore, I had just emailed someone about the same event: "I went to the best birthday party last week that I have been to in a long time." The party was held for one of our grandsons, Parker. Instead of pizzas, video games, and party hats, the party featured critters. You do not have to have an ecologist in the family to host a similar party.

The party was held under a pavilion in a local community park across the street from a protected wetland. It started about like any other birthday party--presents for Parker, ice cream and cake for everyone, and a pack of squealing kindergarteners running around in the park. Then the ecology theme was introduced. Each of the children got a present from Parker's mother--a plastic bug box with holes in the top.

The next step was for the children to bring their bug boxes and sit on the grass in front of a wiggling sack and two large plastic bins filled with water. After the children were seated, I showed them what was in the two bins--Parker's birthday present from me--tadpoles! Big ones, little ones, green ones, brown ones. All had been caught for the occasion by University of Georgia graduate student Tom Luhring.

But I didn't just show them the tadpoles; I let them catch their own. Naturally, the birthday boy, Parker, got to go first and show them how it was done. To the amazement of all, including me, he reached into the bin of water, nabbed a bullfrog tadpole and plopped it into a plastic bag full of water that I had open and ready. A water-filled, clear plastic bag is an excellent way to show fish or other swimming things to children.

Bobbing for tadpoles is more fun than bobbing for apples, so a dozen little hands were soon swirling through the water trying to grasp the slippery prey. More plastic bags were produced, and soon tadpoles were being passed around for all to see. Some mothers looked a bit apprehensive, wondering if tadpoles were going to be a take-home gift for the children. But the tadpoles were eventually returned to their bins.

Then it was time for the sack that was squirming on the ground. I opened it up, let Parker look inside, and told him it was okay to pick up what he saw. To the delight of his friends he pulled out a beautiful three-foot-long kingsnake I had brought. We passed the snake around for all to see. Before the mothers began to worry that this might be the door prize, I said it was time to put the kingsnake back in the bag so I could return it to its home.

For the finale the children traipsed over to the small wetland and began turning over logs to see what they could find to put in their bug boxes. Little children are innately fascinated by roly-polies, millipedes, beetles, and earthworms, and searching for and finding these living treasures is a treat for them. The troop of tiny primates proved this as they moved through the woods eagerly looking under every log and rock. To the children's delight, Parker's dad managed to hand-grab a lizard. I pointed out that some creatures we might find can hurt: centipedes bite, bees sting, and some beetles pinch. Advising children of these facts is important, but such perils should never keep us from letting children explore nature to the fullest.

An ecology-themed party is an excellent way to combine fun and education. But allowing children to explore the outdoors shouldn't be restricted to such events. Children love the outdoors and what can be found there. Make sure your children get plenty of opportunities to indulge that love of nature while they're waiting for the next birthday party in the park.



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