Nature Center brings environmental lessons home to Wilton's youth

WILTON — Reflecting back on 2020, Jennifer Bradshaw recalled a year rife with Wilton’s youth spending an increasing amount of time indoors.

As an early childhood education coordinator and general educator at Woodcock Nature Center in Wilton, Bradshaw says staying inside has directly hindered children from enjoying nature.

Until now, that is. Bradshaw has found a way to bring all of the wonderment of nature inside the safety of a home with a new series of take-home kits for Wilton’s youth. The kits will vary in theme month to month. For this month’s theme, Bradshaw packaged up 25 take-home kits where children could dissect real owl pellets and learn to identify prey that was caught, eaten and regurgitated by the owl. The kit comes with tweezers, two pre-sanitized owl pellets, an owl-themed book, diagrams, coloring books and even a plush toy owl.

The point is to satiate their appetite for knowledge of wildlife, she said, even without them physically being present at the nature center. Hands-on projects and engaging activities are included in each kit.

The idea, she said, came from the early months of the pandemic. At that point, she was on maternity leave, but her mind still wandered back to promoting literacy of nature to the youth of her community.

“At some point I realized that this wasn’t going away anytime soon,” Bradshaw said. “I wanted to keep engaging children and getting them excited about the wonders of nature, even at home. As a whole, that was all of our goals as educators at the nature center.”

Working primarily with birds of prey at Woodcock, Bradshaw’s idea for the owl pellet take-home kit came quickly. She ordered all of the contents of the kit, compiled them and started reaching out to parents. So far she has sold 19 of the 25 kits since the inception of the idea on Jan. 20.

Parents were allotted windows of time to pick up the kits from the nature center. Woodcock currently has six more owl pellet kits, but Bradshaw said that she will create more if the demand is there. The next kits will be rolled out in March.

“I included some fun things like coloring sheets and word searches in the kit. Everything had to do with owls, and everything had to do with learning,” Bradshaw said. “I figured, you can either sit there in a classroom and talk about owl anatomy for two hours, or you can pull apart an owl pellet and actually be hands on. That is how I learn.”

One of Bradshaw and Woodcock’s main goals is to see children foster a keen interest in the environment, but also to encourage creativity.

“There was one child that, all on his own accord, tried to rebuild the prey item with clay and the bones,” Bradshaw said of a child who created a clay model rat after carefully configuring the bones he scavenged from the owl pellet back into an anatomically correct shape. “It is amazing. This is what happens when we let them use their imagination. Kids are so smart and, if you give them the tools, they will really blow your mind.”

Bradshaw said some of the pellets are from Woodcock resident Hootie, a great horned owl that she works with consistently. What Bradshaw wants is Wilton’s youth to continue to participate in these take-home kits and, when they hopefully return in the summer, to actually see the real-life relevance of the projects.

“That would be super helpful to help them continue that learning process,” she said.

Next month, Bradshaw is eyeing a shift to pollinators. Her goal is to bring awareness to monarch butterflies and honey bees, who are losing their natural habitat. The kits will once again come with a plush toy, but this time, it will be a monarch butterfly.