As dragonflies zipped through the Lake Waco Wetlands, a group of about 20 children scattered, afraid the harmless bugs would bite.

Though the blitzing movements of the 11- to 13-year-olds were laughable, the sight isn’t uncommon when students, often out of their element, are visiting the public nature area for the first time, said Nora Schell, Lake Waco Wetlands program director.

“It’s really, really typical because they think it’s going to hurt them,” Schell said.

But, the kids were quick to get past some of their fears.

“I think they all had a really good time,” she said. “I don’t think they’d normally say, ‘Hey, let’s go to a park or to the wetlands.’ I was a park ranger for 18 years, and I saw it all the time where they would just buzz through the park. They wouldn’t stop, and that’s why I like to have the time to tell them, it’s not that.”

Schell and three others spent part of Wednesday morning teaching children about Waco’s water system and the wildlife that can be found locally. The children were from Bledsoe Miller Community Center, which hosts summer camps with the city’s parks and recreation department.

The adventure is part of a new six- to eight-week health education program designed by Baylor University graduate student Andrew Christie. Christie, a parks and recreation intern, is focused on giving children attending the summer camps a chance once a week to unite with nature and to learn about wellness, he said.

“It’s not necessarily a nutrition class or anything like that, but a look at a healthy, holistic lifestyle to get them exposed to a bunch of different things they might not be exposed to,” Christie said.

As Schell took the students across the freshwater marsh, she explained different kinds of pollution and the role the marsh plays in keeping the water clean as it moves through to Lake Waco.

At stops along the way, the children participated in small science experiments to get them used to the outdoors.

“Andrew’s approach is different. We don’t see that all the time, usually don’t see counselors who are into nature,” Schell said. “They just want to a place to come, spend a couple of hours and go back.

“I don’t know what else he’s planning to do with the kids, but I just heard him ask (his supervisor) if they could have a campfire to roast marshmallows and stuff. They don’t get to do that living in an urban environment.”

But with engaging activities like using dip nets to catch fresh water creatures, the students quickly learned to let their guards down, she said.

“At first, I wasn’t ready for it,” 11-year-old Mariyah Freeman said of catching fish and other critters in the nets. “Once I did it, it got a lot more interesting. I heard people getting other things, and I wanted to get what they were getting. It was more fun when I did it.”

Christie, who grew up catching bugs and exploring creeks in “backwoods Pennsylvania,” said seeing inner-city children learn something new through his program is his favorite part. During his first week, he asked his group what they wanted to learn about and was surprised when some of the girls immediately showed a desire to learn about health in a holistic way.

He is applying for a federal grant in hopes of keeping the program around next year and offering it to more kids, he said. For now though, he’s happy to show these youngsters some of Waco’s nature.

“I hope they come away with a better appreciation for the public spaces the city of Waco provides for us and become more likely to use them,” he said.

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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