The six toddlers wouldn’t sit still.
Norfolk Park Ranger Amber Rauch kept reading to the group about autumn, patient. When they were rowdy, she asked them to go around the circle and state their names and their favorite colors. When they got too distracted by a caterpillar, she helped them pick it up and put it back in its habitat.
She only has one rule: respect.
She and fellow ranger Laura Knipp have been working to increase participation, enforcement and maintenance in Norfolk’s parks since they both started in February. The positions had been vacant for years. On Thursday, Rauch was helping instill those values in toddlers in a program, Guardians of the Greenery, that combines art, reading and exploring nature.
Guardians of the Greenery
The theme: “Tree’rific Colors,” which allowed the toddlers to color leaves, identify the real-life leaves in Lakewood Park and read a book about autumn.
“Does anything else fall from the sky in the winter?” she asked the toddlers.
“A leaf! A leaf!” they responded.
“What’s white and fluffy?” she prompted them.
Rauch started the program when she came to Norfolk and realized there weren’t any programs for young kids. She wanted to get them outside and playing.
“That’s when the lightbulb turned on,” she said.
Originally from Wisconsin, Rauch fell in love with the outdoors when she started scuba diving at 13 years old. It’s a hobby that’s taken her around the world.
As a kid, she’d go outside when the sun came out and come back when the street lights turned back on. That’s less common nowadays, she says.
“I want them exploring, touching, getting dirty,” she said. When kids are able to have a physical connection with the environment, they take ownership of it. It’s different than just reading about it.
After she got a degree in environmental science and policy from University of South Florida, Rauch spent 13 years as a park ranger in New York City.
Like New York, Norfolk doesn’t seem as if it would have a lot of wildlife. But there are parks and greenery, she said.
“Urban environments I think a lot of people have understanding that there’s nothing in a city to enjoy when it comes to wildlife,” she said.
Getting in touch with nature
Norfolk doesn’t have a lot of trails, she said, but she wants to help kids look up and appreciate the nature around them. She wants to teach them how to camp. In August, on Toasted Marshmallow Day, she helped them build s’mores and taught many to roast their first marshmallow.
She’d like to bring programs to Norfolk schools, too. Several parents who attended Thursday’s program agreed. Kids need exposure to this kind of hands-on learning.
Brad Rife and his wife homeschool their 5-year-old son Maddox because they were dissatisfied with Norfolk’s public schools. Guardians of the Greenery allows Maddox to interact with other kids and be outside.
“He likes being outside. He loves this stuff,” his father said as the kids gathered around “Miss Amber” on a nature walk. She pointed out blackberry bushes and different types of leaves. The kids scurried around, retrieving fallen leaves.
Morty Williams met Rauch at Northside Park when he and his 4-year-old great-grandson Carter were looking at an egret, mesmerized. They got to talking, and Williams decided to bring Carter to Thursday’s program.
“It’s great for them to be interacting from each other and another adult,” Williams said. “I keep wanting to jump in, but I’m trying to stay back.”
Rachael Hammond said she felt the same way. She brought her 3-year-old son Colin after they read about the program at the public library.
“It’s good for them and good for the parents,” she said.
It takes a village, Williams said.
“You might say this is our taxpayer dollars at work,” he said. “There are times you can complain and complain, and I do, but this is good.”
At the end of the hour-long program, the toddlers begged their parents to let them stay a little longer to play on the playground.
One asked “Miss Amber” to play with them.
“I kept their interest,” she said. “I’d call that a job well done.”