Field notes by J. Cantrell; photos courtesy of MDC

Girls like turtles and everything else that goes along with hands-on science. We commonly hear the word “inclusive” in different social circles, school administrations and some public outreach. Nevertheless, I still don’t know if many of us actually ponder the goal of including all – inviting all! Honestly, I think most disregard is completely unintentional and indeed innocent.  

Personally, inclusion is important to me because I want everyone to enjoy and appreciate the environment. I design local outdoor activities and school lessons as part of my profession. Plus, I often train youth leaders and teachers on the use of some nature viewing and collecting equipment, outdoor skills and basic nature identification. So, my audience in conference settings and special events is principally adults who work with others, especially students. Naturally, my gatherings have the best in mind for their classes and organized groups. But, sometimes, I may hear an easy oversight. My associates might tell of exchanges like, “Do you have anything on turtles? My boy students just love turtles” or “The girls won’t be interested in forestry.”  

Luckily, these accounts are in the minority; nonetheless, I still hear them regularly. The topic of inclusiveness is far-reaching, but my personal mission is honed down to sharing nature’s wonders with everyone. Making sure the girls are equally invited and encouraged is half the objective.  

A starting place is to realize some young girls may be exposed to early hindrances in family and informal settings. The retort may be as simple as making sure the girls are invited. Therefore, ‘tis the season, it’s time for Christmas wish lists, outdoor activities and even New Year nature-related resolutions. A little thought into the holiday season can guarantee all youth have the benefits of the outdoors and are given the opportunity to learn some science groundworks.  

Lower elementary-age boys and girls will love a fishing rod and reel for a holiday gift. The strategic fun move for the gift giver is to add quality time to go along with the fishing equipment. Just starting with a hookless casting plug and friendly rivalry of targeting a shallow bucket in the driveway is a lot of fun. Future fishing trips may be part of the New Year planning; hikes at state parks and conservation areas can easily be incorporated with those resolutions. Other wish list items may be waterproof shoes, warm socks and hats. Plus, kids love the gadgets associated with camping and hiking.  

We add rigor to outdoor activities such as a winter walk or playing in the snow if we discuss with children the effects of weather or perhaps where animals go when it rains or snows. The winter setting is perfect for wildlife viewing and exploring signs of plants and animals for the young scientist. The key is layering clothes for the conditions and making sure everyone has the mindset to enjoy their discoveries.  

Animal tracks are easy to find and birds of prey (including bald eagles) are easiest to observe this time of year. Young naturalists might want to photograph their subjects and study them later. Families may set some goals and resolutions of natural places to visit and outdoor hobbies to try. So many of these fun, recreational outings are learning opportunities and have value to appeal to a wide diversity of youth.  

Missouri school districts promote S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering and math) and naturally, our beautiful habitats are a major part of the life sciences in S.T.E.M. Educators and parents will recognize learning and life skills developing with each outdoor experience.  

Ultimately, these may be pipelines for students to become women and men in the science fields of universities and careers. We just have to have the foundation of being welcoming to all boys and the girls! Let us start this season.  

Merry Christmas! I hope to see you on a snowy wooded Ozark trail.  – Jeff

(Jeff Cantrell is a local biologist and conservation educator, based at the Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center. Email him at jeff.cantrell@mdc.mo.gov.)