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Brownie Scouts go wild over Project Wild

The Brownie Scouts are amassing on the lawn of Oakridge Elementary. They giggle. They shriek. It's nearly time for their meeting. Today they will earn an "animals" badge. But first the troop leaders take a few minutes to get organized, sorting wildlife photos on a card table. While waiting for their nature lesson to begin, the girls revel in nature.

The Brownies run across the grass. They collect seed pods. One girl shows the others how to split a pod open to its sticky center. She fastens the pod like a rhino horn across the bridge of her small nose.Julie Mason is the leader of Troop 942. Last year Mason and her assistant leader, Kim Woodward, took a class through the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to learn how to teach children about nature. The training was in something called Project Wild.

They wanted to help their Brownies better appreciate wildlife - out in the wilds of Capitol Reef on the troop's annual campout. They signed up for training to become better leaders, not - as Woodward points out - because they relish spending an entire Saturday in a class.

They were surprised. Woodward says the Scout leaders actually enjoyed Project Wild training. "They put us through so many fun games and activities," she says. "We'd sit and learn for a short period, and then we'd get up and play. We felt like kids again. We got to run around acting like fish, acting like bears. We drew pictures on the ground."

Now the time has come to pass the concepts along to the children.

Mason begins one Project Wild project by asking, "What is habitat?" A girl answers, "Well if you went to an owl's habitat it would be a tall tree with lots of mice. . . ." Mason pulls out a chart. The girls learn that a habitat must have food, water, shelter and space - and all must be arranged properly for the creatures who live there.

The Brownies test the importance of "arrangement" in an activity called "The Habitat Lap Sit." Each girl is assigned to one of four groups - food, water, shelter, space. Then one girl from each group comes to form a habitat, and then four more form another habitat, which lines up next to the first. When everyone is part of a habitat and each habitat is in line, they make a circle. Mason helps squish the circle together so the ever-giggling Brownies are standing as close as can be. Each girl faces the back of the next girl.

Now sit, Mason tells them. And they sit - falling in a heap and shouting with laughter. Then they try it again, because, Woodward and Mason explain, habitats will support life if they are arranged in the right way. They sit slowly, this time. And it works. Each girl is supported on the knees of the girl behind her.

The healthy habitat arrangement holds up pretty well. Long seconds elapse before the Brownies collapse, in a laughing pile. They try it a third time. Now Mason removes just one girl, merely takes the food out of one habitat. Then the girls try to sit again and the collapse is inevitable.

In classrooms and Scout camps all across the nation, children are learning by playing at Project Wild. Not that the children know the name Project Wild. Project Wild trains teachers, then teachers train kids, teaching them the importance of conservation, the marvels of habitat, the wonders of animals.

In Utah, Diana Vos is the assistant coordinator for Project Wild. Vos explains there is a Project Wild program in every state. Sometimes it is administered through the education department. In Utah, as in most states, Project Wild is under the Department of Natural Resources, funded by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses.

Every year, in 10-hour workshops, Vos trains about 1,000 Utah teachers and youth group leaders. Teachers who have taken the training come back year after year to check out resource materials from the Project Wild library. Vos believes the program reaches at least 40,000 Utah children every year. New this year is Early Childhood Project Wild, for preschool teachers.

Project Wild was born in the 1970s, when a consortium of 13 Western states gave funding to teachers to write environmental education curriculum. Project Wild began in Utah in 1984.

Whether or not the children have ever heard of it, Project Wild is the most popular environmental education program in the world, Vos says. There are Project Wild coordinators in each state, in every Canadian province, throughout Sweden, India, the Czech Republic, Iceland. . . . All these children, all over the world, learning about wildlife.

Your hope, says Woodward, is that the lessons will help them make ecologically sound decisions when they are grown up. The girls in Troop 942 seem already to to know that what they are playing has implications in real life.

In another Project Wild activity, the girls pretend to be bears. Mason strews colored paper across the lawn. (Blue is water. Orange is 10 pounds of nuts, or 12 pounds of insects.) Fifteen bear-girls scurry about trying to pick up enough food to live on for a few weeks. Not all 15 bears have an equal chance to survive. Two are injured. One is a mother with cubs to feed. Unbeknownst to the girls, Mason has set out only enough food to feed six bears for 10 days.

The Brownies quickly grasp the idea that a small habitat can only feed a small number of animals. One girl speculates that by the time the weak bears start to starve to death, it might be too late for the strong bears. The weak ones will have eaten at least some of the food that the others need to survive.

So the Brownies, quite on their own, have predicted the death of the species, once loss of habitat begins.

You don't want to focus too much on doom and gloom, though, says Vos. When you are teaching kids about nature, you want them to be excited about the world. You don't want them to worry about extinction or statistics, or even have to learn a bunch of names. You want them to have the fun of exploring. "To feel the natural world is a safe and friendly place," she says. "Eventually they'll learn to appreciate it and to love and respect it." Then they'll be concerned about preserving it.

When one Project Wild activity is over and the Brownies are waiting for another one to begin, they do what children do naturally. They explore.

There isn't much to discover, here on the playing field. Although Oakridge has more wilderness than most schools - a border of trees and scrub that harbors quail, perhaps even some field mice - the Brownies won't have time to wander off into the weeds.

So they explore on the lawn. And one of them finds a worm. They all gather around. They squeal. One girl picks it up. They squeal again, in unison, making so much noise they don't notice their leader has called them.

Now Mason, seeing she has lost their attention, walks over to where they are gathered. Just as one girl begins to wave the worm at another girl, setting off a whole new wave of squeals, Mason intervenes. "No, no!" she says. "Is this what you do with wildlife? Now put that worm back on the grass." They do, protesting that the worm will get stepped on unless they hold it.

Then the girls go back to their lesson. And the worm, against all educated predictions of the young naturalists, makes its way back into the soil.

For more information about Project Wild, call 538-4719. Or check out the Web site at (http://www.nr.state.ut.us/dwr/!proj0.htm).