The folks at Friends of the Rappahannock have adapted to meet the needs of families with a variety of online offerings to engage kids in activities that allow them to explore nature’s bounty from home.

“In all we do, we strive to carry out our mission to be a voice and active force to promote the health of the Rappahannock River,” said education manager Nancy Stalik. “Our Restoration and Education programs had typically involved bringing students to the river or outside. Since we can’t do that right now, we are developing digital content, including videos and coloring pages that convey environmental lessons and include fun facts about animals and plants in our local environment.”

“Each video and coloring page offers something new for children to learn about the plants, animals and river that flows near their home. A coloring page could be the beginning to a day spent at a nearby state park and observing birds. One of our videos could inspire your very own critter hunt in a nearby stream and lead into a lesson on how these animals are clues to the health of the stream,” said communications manager Joellen Santulli.

One engaging video that is sure to spark some exploration is “Catching Critters in Backyard Streams,” which is hosted by Stalik. The five-minute clip gives a flavor of the adventure that kids and their parents can find in in their local stream beds or storm drains as they search for aquatic creatures.

Exploration requires simple household objects as equipment: a kitchen strainer, plastic food containers or ice-cube trays (for specimens), and an identification key for macroinvertebrates (bugs that are visible to the naked eye and have no backbone), which is easily accessible online. Using the key’s illustrations, stream explorers can trace a chart through descriptions of shells, pairs of legs, wings and tails, until they come upon the illustration that depicts what they have retrieved.

As the video shows—and Stalik has discovered in exploring her own neighborhood—the most common “finds” are shrimp-like creatures called scuds, and damselflies and dragonflies in their nymph stage.

In the process of their investigation, backyard explorers will learn that a simple stream can be teeming with life and they might also come to appreciate the vital role that even tiny critters play in sustaining the health of the environment.

“They are at the bottom of the food chain, and provide food for larger bugs and fish, so they are really important,” said Stalik. “When we find these with kids at the river, some of them are a little alarmed to see what is living in the water. But we tell them that they should be happy they found them, because that is a sign that the water is healthy and clean and, if we came here and found nothing, that would be really bad!”

Another related video “What Color Is the Water?” features a series of experiments using glasses of water and samples of soil, sand, leaves, and rocks. Executive director Daria Christian shows how matter at the bottom of the river, floating near its surface, and suspended or dissolved in the water can influence how the river appears to the eye.

“After a storm you may see that the river looks like chocolate milk. That is all the sediment that has been picked up through the water as it runs across the land and into the river,” said Stalik. “Many people aren’t aware that the main pollutant in the Rappahannock River is sediment. When there is too much sediment in the water, it is called ‘turbid’ and light can’t get through to all the plants in the water that produce the oxygen.”

One of the best natural deterrents to sediment pollution is the root system of trees planted along the river and stream banks. These stabilize the soil, preventing erosion, and the roots catch and filter polluted stormwater before it enters the river.

In honor of this important vegetation, there is a movement-oriented video for young children, “Remembering the Parts of a Tree” that encourages viewers to mime the roles of a tree’s roots, trunk, bark, branches, leaves and seeds. Another video titled “How to Plant a Tree” includes guidance on how deep to plant a seedling and how to position a tree tube protector that will help during the seedling’s early growth.

The tree-planting video is especially timely and valuable now, given that the folks at Friends of the Rappahannock—in partnership with Tree Fredericksburg and Bartlett Tree Experts—will host a free drive-through tree giveaway Saturday, June 6, at James Monroe High School, while supplies last. Details about the giveaway are posted on the “events” page of the FOR website. It includes a list of the species that will be available and information about each so that families can choose which is best for their property. Families must reserve their trees online and bring the printed receipt to the giveaway. There is a limit of three trees per family.

“In addition to their environmental benefits, trees are great for making your yard a more family friendly place. And they provide shade, which makes your yard cooler in the summer,” said river steward Adam Lynch. “When I was growing up, we had a big American holly in our backyard, and I spent lots of time climbing and making treehouses in it. Planting a tree together can be a great bonding experience for parents and kids and creates a lasting legacy for your family.”

“I would encourage parents and their now-home-students to explore our website and find things they can do together outside. By investigating and exploring different parts of our environment, we can see how we all fit together and can play a role for the good of the whole,” said Stalik. “Spending time in nature is not only good for our physical health but for our emotional and spiritual health, as well.”

Riverfriends.org (Education and Events)

Collette Caprara is a local writer and artist.

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