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From Backyards to Backwoods: Kids learn nature photography at Itasca

Adrian Ness hones his photo skills from a blind at Itasca State Park. (Steve Maanum / For the Enterprise)1 / 2
Jay, one of Itasca State Park's birdfeeder mannequins, gets birds acclimated to humans. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

What do you get when you bus 25 fourth graders to Itasca State Park on a cool December day and put cameras in their hands so they can become nature photographers for a day? You get a whole lot of interested, happy, well-behaved, and motivated students.

Recently we gave Park Rapids teacher Tina Ridlon and her class the opportunity to learn about the environment through the lens of a camera. The students were divided into groups as they rotated through a series of photo stations that were set up inside and outside of Itasca's Visitor Center.

Outside activities included sitting in a photo blind while watching and photographing the birds as they came to some of the feeders on one side of the Visitor Center. On the other side of the Center, a station had been set up weeks in advance by Park naturalists Connie Cox and Sandra Lichter. It included two wooden mannequins, Robin and Jay.

Birdseed had been placed in their gloved hands and on their caps in an attempt to get the birds accustomed to feeding from those locations. Students had the chance to sit on a chair between the two mannequins and try their hand at feeding birds in a close-up way. Another outside activity involved GPS units.

Joe Courneya, University of Minnesota Extension educator and my partner in this "Through the Lens of the Camera" project, taught a lesson on using the navigation instruments and then sent students out to find and photograph pre-determined locations.

Inside activities dealt with a session on close-up photography by Carrol Henderson. He is the director of Minnesota's DNR non-game division, as well as an author of several books, including "Woodworking for Wildlife" and "Birds in Flight."

He helped the students focus on the beaks, eyes, feet, and feathers of mounted specimens while talking about how those features help each specific type of bird survive in their surroundings.

Carrol has photographed wildlife throughout the world so having the kids benefit from his experience was a wonderful addition to the day's events. I got to help the students download their photos into laptop computers, print their favorite photo, and then use it to make a greeting card.

That day in the park brought two generations together to share in what nature had to offer. The young consisted of fourth graders who will hopefully grow up to understand and appreciate nature a little more because of their Itasca experience. The adults consisted of teachers (active and retired), parents, para-professionals, DNR personnel, University of Minnesota educators, and others who combined their backgrounds to use cameras as a teaching tool. I'm not sure if I saw more smiles on the faces of the kids or the adults.

As the students were loading the bus to return to school, one of the girls said, "I wish the day was just beginning instead of ending." A parent volunteer was heard saying, "Now I know what to get my daughter for Christmas."

If your Christmas shopping isn't done yet, consider adding a digital camera to your list.

For questions and comments you can reach Steve Maanum at