EcoReach launches “Backyard Critters” to connect students with nature in Athens

Irene Wright, Irene.wright@uga.edu, Chancey Phillips, chancey.phillips@uga.edu

Contact: BackyardCritters.Athens@gmail.com

Camellia flower. Photo courtesy of EcoReach.

Athens, Ga. – A growing body of research confirms that children—and adults—benefit from spending time in nature. “Backyard Critters,” a new program from University of Georgia student organization EcoReach, aims to help schoolchildren in Athens-Clarke County to do just that.

EcoReach, based in the Odum School of Ecology, works to foster a sense of connection, curiosity and enthusiasm for the natural world through interactions with K-12 students. The organization has created curriculum supplements to help local teachers cover ecological concepts and processes, hosted panels on careers in ecology and held events that bring local students and community members to the University of Georgia to learn about the world around them.

Despite being separated from classrooms since March 2020, EcoReach has continued to connect with students virtually, conducting visits over Zoom and creating asynchronous teaching materials. Backyard Critters is a new program that extends past the classroom and into students’ own neighborhoods.

By encouraging students and other community members to share observations about the different “critters” they find in their backyards and neighborhoods, the program inspires kids to get outside while getting them excited about the diverse ecosystems in and around Athens.

“You don’t have to go to a park or go somewhere to go camping to be able to notice ecology and ecosystems,” said Carol Yang, EcoReach co-coordinator and a graduate student in ecology. “We live in ecosystems, and these students are the experts of the place they live in.”

Anyone in the Athens area, including K-12 students, UGA students, and other community members, can participate in the program by submitting observations about the “critters” they find in their own neighborhoods. “Critters” can range from squirrels to mushrooms, from plants to hawks, and anything in between. Observations can take the form of a photo, drawing, story, poem or whatever participants are inspired to create.

“We definitely wanted to consider accessibility when we were designing the program,” said EcoReach member and ecology graduate student Julie Blaze, part of the Backyard Critters team. “We want people to be able to participate even if they don’t have a cellphone camera or a way to take a picture of the organism they are seeing”

Submissions, which so far include a marbled salamander and a Japanese camellia flower, are shared on the EcoReach website, social media and blog.

“It can be fun to create this collective sense of observation” said Yang, “We are all noticing different things, spring is really just around the corner, and it’s fun to have it funnel into one thing and celebrate those observations together.”

Ecology graduate student and EcoReach co-coordinator Carolyn Cummins noted that many ecologists cite formative memories in nature as the reason they got into the field of ecology.

“We want to highlight that these types of connections can be formed while you’re playing outside with friends or even just on a walk around your neighborhood,” she said, “and this is a fun and COVID-19 safe activity to do right now that can make those memories.”

Participating in Backyard Critters offers students a creative way to not only observe, but also learn about the ecosystem they live in. Backyard Critters team members will respond to each submission, providing critter identifications and facts and answering participants’ questions.

EcoReach is prepared to collaborate with teachers to bring Backyard Critters to classrooms. Teachers can schedule Zoom sessions with EcoReach’s diverse network of ecologists to discuss more in-depth information about local plants, animals, and ecosystems. EcoReach will also create posters based on submissions from students that can be displayed in participating classrooms.

For more information and to submit your backyard critter observations, visit: https://ecoreach.ecology.uga.edu/backyard-critters/.