The subject of invasive plants, what they are, and what they do to the environment can get quite technical, which makes talking about them to young kids a little tricky. Words such as allelopathy, monoculture, biodiversity, and niche can be difficult concepts for adults to understand, let alone kids whose primary educational experiences have been in languages other than English.
Last week, at a stewardship learning event, the National Forest Foundation and the US Forest Service invited 25 elementary aged kids from an educational facility which serves diverse youth, many of them recent immigrants and refugees from Somalia and 10 high school aged youth from Seattle Parks and Recreation Outdoor Opportunities to come out to a beautiful place managed by the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest called Gold Creek Pond. The goal was to educate them about Gold Creek Pond’s unique history and then have them participate in an integrated pest management project, involving releasing a beetle that feeds on St. John’s Wort, an aggressive invader.
We started with a basic introduction to invasive plants and explained to them that invasive plants are plants that are not supposed to be here. They’re really “mean” plants; they’re playground bullies that put native plants in a headlock and give them a noogie. Then we played a game of ‘blob tag’ in which everyone starts as a native plant, like a Douglas fir, or a Bleeding Purple Heart flower, the person who is “it” is an invasive weed, such as St. John’s Wort or Oxeye daisy. If a native plant is tagged by an invasive plant they link arms with the invasive and help tag other native plants, eventually creating a giant blob of invasive weeds. Following the game we reviewed the results and discussed how this is similar and different in real life with plants.
Then finally, the moment that everyone was waiting for, Jen Andreas, biological control expert of Washington State University, brought out two bins full of small, blueish green metallic beetles, all of which she had captured herself using a suction device attached to a small jar. “They’re called Chriysolina beetles”, she explained “and they like to feed on the leaves and stem of St. John’s Wort to the point of killing it.” After spending several minutes playing with the beetles, admiring their bright colors, and asking if they could take one home, the children released them on a large patch of St. John’s Wort.
At the end of every event, we like to do a closing circle, sometimes it involves having everyone go around say one thing that they learned, enjoyed or took away from the experience. What I learned from this experience is that any subject, not matter how technical or dense it may be, with the right mind set, can be turned into a fun, interactive, and enjoyable experience for kids, and adults too.