COLUMBIA — Ten-year-old Keaton Locket, one of 21 children sitting in the short-grass prairie at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park on Wednesday morning, blurted his question: "Where do animals go if prairies are replaced by farms?"
"Well, less prairies equals less animals," said Roxie Campbell, a park naturalist who did her best to communicate that message to children attending the annual Explorer Days put on by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
Campbell, an MU graduate, has been with the program since it started 18 years ago. “There’s no substitute for seeing nature in real life, but many kids lack that," she said. "Explorer Days gets them out experiencing the park.”
During the three-day program, Campbell guides her students to a better understanding of the state's animals and plants. Participants also helped yank up bush honeysuckle, a non-native weed that can muscle out native vegetation.
The learning opportunities at Explorer Days are as diverse as the ecosystems the participants study.
Matthew Reilly, 10, is back for a second year and said he can't wait for Friday, when he gets to explore a cave.
Bug hunting is a big favorite for others. “Lepidopterans like butterflies are my favorite!” 9-year-old Christian Fluharty said.
Star Pluschki-Gerard, 11, another second-year participant, proudly captured two grasshoppers Wednesday — but she let them go a few minutes later.
Most of the children, ages 9 to 11, are from the Columbia area; the program is free, but participants must register.
Explorer Days is a family outing for cousins John Teter and Jacob Ripley, both 10. They say they do everything together, but this is their first nature program.
At one point during the morning, Campbell sent the children, all but two of whom are boys, to find a plant, name it whatever they wanted and then draw it. Star found a thorny shrub and called it "death angel," and John named something that looked like Indian paintbrush "purple fury."
Campbell has worked in parks for 25 years, first in Arkansas and then in Missouri. She said she's a big believer in experiencing nature up close and in person — "not on TV or a book."