Author Linda Gallo Hawley is a former elementary classroom teacher and adjunct college professor. In 2004, she completed trail guide training at Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego, CA and later created and taught her “wildly popular” nature classes at the park for nearly 10 years. Busy with the recent publication of the new book based on these outdoor courses, Nature Adventures!, she continues to volunteer as a trail guide, and offers presentations in other San Diego parks, schools, libraries, and senior centers.
Thrilled with the opportunity to publish this celebration of San Diego County’s natural wonders, staff at Sunbelt Publications chatted with the author and adventurer about her journey thus far.
Q: Tell us the story of how you became involved with teaching at Mission Trails Regional Park and how that led to writing Nature Adventures?
A: My husband and I relocated from upstate NY to San Diego in 2001, after having lived and worked on the east coast all our lives. Back east I had been a teacher of elementary, middle school, and community college more than 20 years; now I was ready for a new adventure.
I loved gardening back east, and needed to learn what to do with the very different plants in my San Diego yard, not to mention the animals. The first lizard I grabbed, its tail broke off; I thought I’d killed it! (Now I know better.)
In Dec 2003, I saw an advertisement for trail guide training classes at Mission Trails Regional Park; I registered for the program, figuring I’d learn about the flora and fauna. March 2004, I completed the training, became a volunteer trail guide and found my favorite job was teaching and leading young children on the trails. MTRP already had a wonderful, ranger-led education program in place for K-6 students. I saw a need for a preschool program, so I wrote a curriculum, made up some songs about the animals, and my Nature Adventures! program was born.
My boss, Jay Wilson, Executive Director, says I’ve introduced thousands of people to the park. Teaching has been such fun for me all these years! Parents continually begged me to write a book with all my songs in it, so the family could sing them at home. I took a 2-year sabbatical from teaching to refine my writing, approached Sunbelt Publications, Inc., and now I have a book for San Diego families.
Nature Adventures! is very popular with teachers, especially those involved with STEM and STEAM. Homeschooling parents love it because it encompasses science, art, music and vocabulary-building. My talented illustrator, Linda Gilbreath, used pen and ink so that children can color the animals. She also provided musical scores for budding musicians to play on piano or violin, as they sing my lyrics to well-known children’s songs.
Q: You’ve taught these songs to children for years. Do you ever hear about them singing the songs even after they’ve left your classes? Are there any new compositions on the horizon?
A: Oh, yes! Years later I hear from moms who tell me that their children break into song on the trails, or while coloring a picture of an animal. They also remember all the little details I’ve taught them about the animals and their habitats. The songs are teaching tools that help children remember the facts.
Many “graduates” of my program are buying my book for their now middle and high school-aged children! It’s a wonderful compliment, and a joy to see them show up at signing events. I always have new compositions popping into my head, whether walking alone or on the trails with my students.
Q: The children you typically teach are quite young, the promotional materials specifying ages four and up. How do the younger kids handle some of the advanced vocabulary taught in your book and songs? For example, we’re trying to imagine a first grader pronouncing the scientific name for American white pelican, Pelecanus arthrohynchos.
A: This is what makes my book unique! The songs appeal to the younger set, and the factual material to the older students and adults, and the music and illustrations to all.
However, you’d be AMAZED by the retention and usage of new vocabulary of the very youngest children! Especially if the words are used in a catchy tune, or a funny puppet “talking” to them, they learn and remember metamorphosis, camouflage, echolocation and more.
For example, when we sing the “Spider’s Anatomy Song,” we all stand and move our hands on our body parts, demonstrating where the cephalothorax & abdomen are found on a spider. Pronunciation of difficult scientific names is not a priority; I included them for the students and adults who wish to explore further online or in books. The proper scientific name is important when researching, as there are many subspecies of similar animals that are not found in San Diego.
Everyone finds it interesting to learn why insects need to be categorized differently, depending on the type of wings they have, and that the suffix, “-ptera”—as in Coleoptera and Hemiptera—means “wing”. (You’ll need to read my book to find out what “coleo” & “hemi” mean.)
And, isn’t it interesting that the bats’ order is Chiroptera; how is it related to chiropractor? This is a fun way to learn word etymology, too. Yet, we’ve all heard children pronounce hippopotamus and Tyrannosaurus Rex, right? We must never underestimate children; challenge them instead.
Q: The native flora in San Diego County is much drier than in the natural areas you would have known in your native New York. How did this western landscape capture your heart?
A: I have come to love and appreciate the western plants—their simplicity, their smaller, delicate flowers, and incredible ability to adapt to dry conditions, by shrinking or curling their leaves, going dormant, and by depending on animals to help disperse seeds, pollinate and grow anew. Even the pungent aromas of the native salvias, sagebrush, laurel sumac, and mulefat have captured my heart!
Q: Obviously you’ve found a way to translate that appreciation to children. What excites them the most on the trails and what do you do to develop their awareness and observation skills in nature?
A: Most exciting for children on the trails is discovery and observation through sensory awareness. We all rely on sight, and finding scats, tracks and habitats is always a huge thrill for them. But to teach them to use their sense of smell, or to touch the variety of leaves experiencing what the flora have to offer, to STOP talking and listen to the voices of birds, or of lizards rustling leaves, or of a rattlesnake rattling its tail before we spot it—these are special moments for all of us.
I ask them to examine carefully and identify the signs of animal life, rather than tell them immediately; I love to make them think and analyze before speaking, and they DO! Before heading out on the trails they’ve first had a lesson in the classroom. Teaching with puppets, pelts, replicated tracks, scats, skulls, and specimens makes the class more interesting, and holds their attention. Then they are prepared to observe, and each class builds on the next.
By the end of the year they can recall nearly every detail taught! They learn to appreciate the gift they have here in San Diego’s nature, and to be good stewards of the land. Children soak up knowledge, and I LOVE teaching them about their big backyard!