Retzer Nature Center – Waukesha, WI

Last week, I chaperoned our first grader, and his class, on a field trip to Retzer Nature Center. The trip was educational, and more importantly, fun! The children were able to explore the woods, prairie, and river ecosystems native to our area. Of course we were given a stern warning NOT to taste anything, but the children were encouraged to touch, see, hear, and smell all that nature provided around them.

At the beginning of our trip, each child was given a baggie and encouraged to gather parts of our ecosystem that had been eaten, fallen off a tree, dried up from last season, or with permission, they could pick a newly developing plant. These bags would be taken back to class for a group discussion.

Stump

Our first stop, the forest, included one of the favorite activities for the class of seven year olds, dissecting an owl pellet with the help of our guide, Mr. Larry. (Mr. Larry is an enthusiastic walking encyclopedia with the patience of a saint.) Students looked for owl pellets at the base of trees where the owl was seen, by Mr. Larry, earlier in the week. The pellet contained the undigested parts of a rodent after the owl regurgitated. The students loved seeing all the bones and Mr. Larry helped the children decipher where each bone would belong on a mouse. Of course the mother’s in our group all reached for their hand sanitizer but Mr. Larry promised that the children could wash their hands before lunch.

 

Another lesson learned in the forest portion was that the trees look to the sun to eat. The kids giggled because it was raining and they were spinning with their mouths wide open, and arms stretched out, to catch a drink from the sky just like the trees get food from the sun.

trees

Our uphill path from the forest to the prairie provided us with some beautiful newly blooming flowers but also led us to the dying Ash trees. In our area, the Emerald Ash Borer bugs are killing our beautiful Ash trees. Mr. Larry showed the kids the damage the little beetle larvae create. The adult beetle eats at the foliage but doesn’t do as much damage. It sounded like the Ash trees will eventually be removed from the nature center. For now, the trees that have fallen provide a safe haven for centipedes, worms, and other little creatures…until little seven year old boys discover them!

The prairie had just entered it’s last year of the three year burning cycle. When we arrived the prairie looked like a field of black ash with bits of new life budding a bright green. A few birds sang their beautiful songs while their vibrant colored feathers displayed beautifully on the black backdrop.

We eventually wound our way to the gentle moving stream. We walked across the wooden path lined with skunk cabbage. One skunk cabbage leaf was picked and each child in the group was encouraged to breath in the scent but one whiff of the skunk cabbage and the children knew exactly how it earned it’s name! Luckily the children were excitedly distracted by a “Water Strider” bug gently making it’s way through life.

At the end of our tour, Mr. Larry led us to the Environmental Learning Center. Inside the large meeting space, the children decorated a styrofoam cup to house damp cotton balls and alfalfa sprout seeds. The students will keep these in their classroom and (hopefully) watch the plants grow. The children were gently reminded that seeds need sunlight and water to grow into a plant.

The craft project led us to our final event at the center: LUNCH! The children enjoyed the sun and ate their lunches on the patio or in the grass. The funny thing about this trip, unlike many other field trips, not one child in our group asked about lunch, said “I’m hungry” or “I’m tired.” When it was time to pack up “awwww, do we have to leave?” was a common phrase muttered.

Retzer Nature Center provides many educational opportunities for people of all ages. It’s also a great place to explore and be with nature.

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