It was one of the first days of spring, and Cara Murphy had her work cut out for her.
In a field in St. Louis’ Tower Grove Park, the outdoor educator sat on a blanket, surrounded by more than a dozen loud and distracted children between the ages of 4 to 10. She held a large poster covered in illustrations of animals and plants. Some children pointed and named animals on the poster; a few focused more on digging up the dirt around them.
Murphy is teaching a class called "Food Web” about how animals, plants, the sun and other organisms consume energy from each other. It’s one of several classes she started teaching this year for In The Field, an outdoor education organization she recently founded.
By observing and learning facts about wildlife in parks and other natural areas, kids are more likely to appreciate the nature that exists where they live, Murphy said.
“We don’t do a very good job as a culture of helping people discover what they might see in their backyard or in a crack of a sidewalk,” Murphy said. “They might be seeing some really cool plants, but if you don’t know anything about them, then it’s not cool.”
After putting the food web poster away, Murphy began to unravel a ball of yarn. She asked the children to stand up and assume roles, like the sun, a tree or a squirrel. When each child picked a role, they had to hold a part of the yarn.
“Does anybody not have yarn yet? Who might eat a hawk?” Murphy asked.
“A kitty?” a child said.
“A kitty?” Murphy responded with a laugh. “Maybe a bobcat. Or a mountain lion. Hawks are hard to catch, but I think it’s possible.”
Once the children were properly tangled in yarn, Murphy asked them to start tugging on the yarn, which represented the food web.
“When one person tugs on the web, then generally we start feeling it around our food web. And that’s because everything ends up being connected in some way,” she said.
Murphy, 31, has spent about a decade as an outdoor educator. After studying art therapy in college in Austin, she taught families how to camp in the Texas wilderness and then worked as an interpreter at the St. Louis Zoo and the Missouri Botanical Garden.
While she enjoyed talking to visitors at the garden and the zoo about the environment, Murphy said she felt limited. She wanted to teach more subjects than she was allowed to and have the freedom to educate people in different parks in the St. Louis area.
“It’s our duty as adults to show kids where they can find nature — on the yard, out on the street, a county park or a national park,” Murphy said.
Murphy began to appreciate nature playing at the creek behind her home in St. Charles as a child. She fondly recalled the nature club she formed with her cousin when they were kids and the hierarchy among the “creek kids.”
“I want to help kids to be able to have that experience of being in the creek behind their house, even if they don’t have a creek by their house,” Murphy said.
In Tower Grove Park, children ran around a creek while illustrations of mushrooms, fish and other living things hung around their necks on strings. Murphy tried to call over the child wearing a drawing of a wolf to tell a real example of why the food web is important.
“So we’re talking about wolves in Yellowstone,” she said. “Has anybody ever been to Yellowstone National Park?”
Murphy started to explain one of the most famous success stories in animal conservation: when rangers reintroduced wolves back to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. Wolves had been nearly wiped out for decades, as ranchers killed them for preying on livestock.
“They had to bring [the wolves] back,” Murphy said. “When they did that, they noticed not only were the wolves back, but everything in the landscape changed where they brought the wolves back.”
However, as Murphy’s spoke, the children gave little indication they listened. Instead, they picked up little sticks on the ground, dug their fingers in the mud and searched for critters in the water.
“Those kids aren’t bored,” Murphy said later. “Those kids were highly engaged with what was going around them, so even if they’re not listening to me, they realize there’s stuff for them outside to do. I think that’s great.”
Nearby, parents watched their children. Many of them mentioned that they homeschool their kids and had heard about the classes through social media feeds geared for families with homeschooled children.
The classes mean more than just outdoor education, said Paige Johnson, whose son is in the class.
“[Cara Murphy] is doing games and stuff that I can’t do with him,” said Johnson, of Hillsboro. “He gets to show off what he knows and gets to learn stuff from other kids.”
In The Field is almost entirely run by Murphy and her husband. As Murphy teaches more classes this year, she hopes that schools in the St. Louis area will be interested in hiring her to teach classes. She’s concerned that children are spending a lot of time in front of computer and tablet screens in school.
“The idea that they’re looking at screens all the time, that scares me,” Murphy said. “Their brains are still forming, and while I don’t think things are irreparable, we might be doing more damage than we realize. We might think it’s safer for kids to be indoors, but they get more out of being outside.”
But in the long term, she wants In The Field to help children develop a lifelong appreciation for nature. If they have that, they will want to take care of the environment when they get older, she said.
“Kids who care about being outside that understand the insanely amazing experience that you can have when you’re in nature,” Murphy said, “if they’re connected in that way, they’re more likely to want to take care of the planet, which we obviously desperately need right now.”
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