When Jake Francis steps in front of a campfire and a crowd, he transforms from mild mannered young man into a whirling dervish of energy and information. At least he did last week at the Thursday night summer campfire at the Schrader Environmental Education Center in Wheeling (www.oionline.com
; 304-242-6855). And that's as it should be: Francis is the Schrader Center's director of environmental education.As dusk enveloped the wooded amphitheater and flames morphed into embers, Francis wowed the crowd of about 70 children, parents and grandparents with animated stories and sing-a-longs. Even 3-year-olds got into the act. Then everyone grabbed a stick, roasted marshmallows and made s'mores.After the Schrader Center campfire on clear summer nights, there's usually an opportunity to view the night sky at the observatory just across the road. I picked this night to attend because Francis also had scheduled a mothing event after the campfire. He had painted a few tree trunks with a mixture of sugar, molasses and stale beer as bait and had set up a lighted bedsheet to attract moths. We only saw a few ordinary moths, but it was the campfire experience that impressed me.The aroma of wood smoke kicked in powerful olfactory memories that whisked me back to Boy Scout camp. I recalled early morning reveille, oatmeal and flapjacks, learning to paddle a canoe, the smell of wet canvas tents, and, of course, campfire sing-a-longs.
It also brought back more recent memories of backyard campfires with my daughters when they were little girls. At the time, it was just family fun, but in retrospect, it was much more than that. I taught them the voices of barred owls, great horned owls and coyotes. We told ghost stories and shared hopes and dreams for the future. We learned the major constellations. And some nights we even got to watch meteor showers rain fire across the sky.The girls are grown now and finding their way in the world, but I know they remember those special nights lying on a blanket, watching, listening, whispering. Important lessons can be learned and memories shaped around a summer campfire. And those lessons and memories lay the foundation of a conservation ethic. Neither of my daughters is a biologist or professional conservationist, but they both love nature fiercely.Jake Francis is like every environmental educator I've ever known. They all love to teach. But they don't just teach. They perform. In fact, every successful teacher is a performer. They use different voices, tell stories, engage students, and may even act out or sing. Think back to your best teachers, regardless the subject matter. They didn't just stand in front of the class and lecture. They presented the material in a way that made you want to learn.One of my high school English teachers, for example, read aloud to us. It seemed silly at first for a teacher to read to high school juniors. But with the spoken word, she brought the classics to life. Her "performances" inspired me to complete nightly reading assignments.So it is with Jake Francis and environmental educators in general. They love what they do. And they can connect with everyone from young children to elderly grandparents.But formal environmental education programs are just one way to connect with kids. Another way, and a better way, is for parents to make the connection.Too often parents undervalue their importance. Parents are teachers, heroes and role models to their children. At the time, we may be too busy and too close to see those connections. But parents shouldn't miss out on opportunities to introduce children to nature and the outdoors. Memories of stargazing, backyard campfires, nature hikes and splashing in a cold mountain stream last forever. And those memories form a template upon which future conservationists are formed.Few of us can live where we can have campfires in the backyard, but everyone can visit nature centers and parks that offer these special evenings. Watch for notices in local newspapers for fall campfires. A campfire on a chilly autumn evening is the best campfire of all.Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.