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World Wetlands Day 2012: Part 2

Aransas NWR Gator in the Wetland (c)Beth Chase/TheNatureSchool all rights reserved

February 2nd is World Wetlands Day. The theme this year is Wetland Tourism: A Great Experience. Perhaps you have visited some famous wetlands and can describe your own experience, perhaps not. You don’t have to travel far to find wetlands, very likely there is a wetland near your home. In this post I have activities that you can do at a wetland or two near you.

What is a wetland?   This activity is designed to explore a wetland and compare it to a non-wetland.

Wetlands are identified by the type of soils and by the kinds of plants present. Because wetlands are covered with water for at least a significant part of the year the soils become what is known as anaerobic. Anaerobic means with out oxygen. This will often give wetland soils that characteristic “rotten egg” smell. As material breaks down underwater, it uses up all the oxygen in the soils and starts giving off sulfur dioxide gas, the same gas that rotting eggs emit. If you look at healthy soil that is not underwater you will notice that it has a lot of spaces between the little bits and pieces that make up the soil. Upland soils have a lot of air in them and plants will take up the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air in those gaps through their roots. Upland plants need the air in soil to survive. If they are submersed in water their roots will rot and the plant will die. Plants that are found in wetlands, like Cat Tails and Rushes among others, have special roots that are adapted to taking oxygen out of water.

Age: This activity is suitable for all ages with adaptation. For young children and first time explorers keep the expectations simple and appropriate to age, skills and experience. For example, preliterate children could use simple words to describe aloud what they see, smell, and feel. In addition, they could draw simple pictures of their observations of the wetland. Older and experienced observers might be expected to write in organized detail about their observations.

Skills: Observation, Description, Analysis (Optional: Microscope, chemical testing)

Step 1, Find a location: Find a place near you that has standing water now or most of the time. Select a small section (a 3×3 to 5×5 foot area) of that wetland to explore if you are working with young children or first time explorers. The more experienced an observer you are working with, the larger the area that can be explored. Even then it is best to make observations systematically of smaller areas until the larger area is covered.

Step 2, Observe: Since wetlands are determined by their plants and their soils, concentrate on those things. It is not necessary to name the plants but there are wetland plant guides if you wish to. What you are looking for are features of the plant. Answer the question: how are the plants in the wetland different from the plants on the upland. Look at all parts of the plant. (Note: You can use a plant from a green house or nursery to analyze the roots so that you don’t need to be ripping plants out of the ground,)  Answer the similar question about the soils: how is the soil in the wet area different from the soil in the upland?

Step 3, Describe: Being able to communicate what you see is important for two reasons. 1) Communication builds connection between people and allows us to share experiences. 2) Communication allows us to explore, modify, and solidify the experiences we have so that they become an active, working part of our knowledge base that we can access for current or future actions. It doesn’t matter whether we describe things out loud to another or whether we write, sing, video or draw that description. What matters is that we find a way to describe what we learned and what we experienced.

Notice, there are two parts to the description. An analytic part and an emotional part. The best descriptions, the ones that resonate and stick with us best, are those that have both parts woven tightly together.

This activity can be adapted to many different levels of exploration. High level students, with lots of experience in exploration can become very detailed and in depth with their studies and use a variety of tests, such as pH, hardness, oxygen levels and nitrogen levels, as well as instruments such as microscopes and can compare several different wetlands and uplands to each other. Beginning explorers can start with learning to observe, question and wonder, and trying to figure out how to answer their questions.

In all cases, I recommend that Wonder be the central object. From Wonder, comes all exploration and learning. Wonder also makes experiences great. Have a great exploration.

I’d love to hear from you and hear what you found in your wetlands near you.

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