Rose Dickson


Rose Dickson

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My Story

The first week of camp I overheard a five-year-old politely ask his fellow campers, “Can we please be quiet so I can listen to nature, because it is music to my ears?”

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We may have been right in the center of the city walking down the bike path, but for my campers we were on an Adventure. They asked if there might be bears in the tunnel under Orange Street bridge and were excited by the water skippers in the shallows of the Clark Fork. They stopped walking for a beetle or an ant, and every interesting leaf was something that needed to be passed around and shared with everyone.

Going into this summer as a camp instructor for the Montana Natural History Center, I was excited by the prospect of being able to introduce kids to the wonders of the natural world around them. Having a connection to the place you live is vital, and I was eager to begin helping the kids find meaning and adventure in the areas around Missoula.

I worked with the youngest age group, kids from three to six years old. Because they were so young we often did not make it very far away from the Center. At first I was concerned that they would miss out; I worried that I would not be able to show them things that would spark their interest and get them excited about their place. But I soon realized that they had a lot to teach me, a person who has spent her entire 22 years in Missoula, about what it means to appreciate the place we live.

I realized I had discounted the smaller experiences and these parks in the middle of town because they did not feel “wild” enough or “natural” enough or somehow interesting enough to be considered. I certainly was not convinced that they would provide eight weeks’ worth of opportunities for learning and exploring. It was the kids who showed me just how many moments we can find in our daily lives that connect us to the natural world and teach us about the place we live.

We do not have to go far from the city—or even leave at all!—to watch an osprey catch fish or see cliff swallows disappear into their little mud nests. The kids marveled that they had seen wild animals up close when a pair of white-tailed deer crossed the path in front of us, and they were equally as excited by the mallard ducks and eastern fox squirrels that we saw. Every day presented a new, thrilling discovery.

One day they found a crayfish under a rock; another time they spotted an empty bird’s nest, and we examined it and admired the craftsmanship. They were always ready to explore: touching and picking and smelling. They admired the fuzzy leaves on the yarrow plant and the different colors of grasshoppers, and their enthusiasm made me look again at the places and things I had brushed aside as uninteresting. I also came to be amazed by the variety of colors in a leaf and the way a squirrel’s bushy tail flicked, and I began to appreciate more fully and deeply these little natural wonders that were all around me right in the middle of town.

As the weeks passed, I was continually reminded that kids have so much to teach us when it comes to developing a sense of place and being aware of our surroundings. Here are just a few of the lessons my summer camp kids taught me:

Slow Down
Little kids are never in a rush to go anywhere, and, try as you might, you are never going to move quickly with fifteen pre-schoolers. The slower pace was nice, because it gave us a chance to notice things that we may have just walked right by: a giant silver beetle crawling across the path, a yellow warbler flitting in the branches of a nearby aspen, a rock shimmering with flecks of mica, or a speckled feather nestled in the grass. In our fast-paced society most of us are in such a hurry to make it to the next part of our day that we pass by things without noticing them, too often missing the moments the trees begin to lose their leaves or the ice crystals begin to form on the river. By slowing down and refusing to rush we are able to see things we may have never noticed before.

Look Closer
Get down lower to the ground. Imagine seeing the world as though you are small again. Everything seems fresh and new when you look at it from a different perspective. Try lying on your back and looking up at a tree or roll on to your stomach and get eye level with the grass. I asked the kids how many shades of green they could see and if they could guess how many leaves are on a single cottonwood. Sometimes when we were sitting down for lunch, we would look at the blades of grass around us and imagine what they would look like if one was the size of an ant or a ladybug.

Adventures Are Everywhere!
The most mundane things can seem more wondrous with the right mindset. Channel your inner childhood curiosity and imagination: look at the places you see every day expecting to see something new and amazing. When walking through Fort Missoula near the Bitterroot nature trail one day, the kids were amazed by a boggy area where they saw three turtles sunbathing on a log and dragonflies swooping all around. I had been near this place quite a few times—usually hurrying on to avoid the mosquitoes—but for the kids it was a fascinating swamp filled with unknown creatures and ample opportunities to investigate. Every day we would review what we had seen, and every week the campers would tell us their favorite camp adventure. Although the kids in my camp were too little to write, one way to make this adventurous mindset a habit is to keep an explorer’s journal where you write down one new thing you noticed each day.

Wherever you happen to live, there is always something new to learn about to deepen your sense of place. For me, teaching summer camp was a great reminder that we do not always have to go very far to see unusual, exciting things. Many times they are waiting to be discovered in places we pass every day—if only we pause to notice them.

A version of this piece was published in the Fall 2013 issue of Montana Naturalist magazine.

Why I Care

Connecting children to the natural world, early in their lives, will ensure that there are leaders to work on conservation efforts in the future. As important as direct hands on the land work, is the education and simple connection of kids to natural places. Even in Montana our children are drawn away from unstructured play and exploration in the woods by television, smart phones, and computer apps. What is so easy to forget with young children is that we don't need to take them into the wilderness for them to have deep experiences in nature. Taking the time to explore a local park, an alley, or a trail close to home can have a profound impact.

Ask any adult who works in conservation what their favorite nature-based childhood memory is. Nearly every time you'll hear a story about exploration in a natural area close to home, unsupervised, and unstructured. Sometimes a parent or adult mentor is part of the story but most of us had opportunities to poke around in the dirt, climb trees, and muck about in the creek.

Sharing in the small discoveries, taking time to really notice what's happening, and celebrating the things that as adults, we feel are fairly run-of-the-mill, can inspire a new appreciation for the lands and ecosystems we work so hard for while inspiring a conservation ethic in the children we share them with.

Take Action

Visit the Montana Natural History Center's website at to participate in programs or get involved as a volunteers.  

Our Conservation Map


Contact Information

Montana Natural History Center

120 Hickory Street

Missoula, MT 59801

Phone: 406-327-0405

Fax: 406-327-0421

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