Smart Start Rowan has encounter with nature

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 8, 2018

By Susan Shinn Turner

Smart Start Rowan

Have you ever stood beneath the wings of a great blue heron and felt the great rush of wind they generate?

Have you ever touched a starfish or a snake or a hissing cockroach from Madagascar?

Preschoolers did all that and more in a series of three free programs sponsored recently by Smart Start Rowan.

Melody and Woody Wilkes of “A Walk in the Woods,” an environmental education company based in Mount Pleasant, brought a traveling museum featuring reptiles on May 24, birds and butterflies on May 31 and coral reefs and sharks on June 6 to the nonprofit agency at 1329 S. Jake Alexander Blvd.

A total of 120 children, along with their caregivers, participated in the series, according to Laura Villegas, Smart Start Rowan’s director of programs.

“Often preschool-age children have limited exposure to hands-on, educational science programs,” Villegas said. “When I discovered A Walk in the Woods, I was pleased that they were able to offer appropriate experiences for young children to learn about nature and the animals living near us. I was amazed at how calm the children remained when they had the opportunity to touch a very large snake, but clearly their favorite was Nemo the clown fish. Everyone knew right away who he was.”

Filling the activity room, an excited crowd learned about birds and butterflies during the hands-on presentation. Wilkes reminded the children to be gentle as they touched soft feathers from owls, ostriches and other birds.

“We try to encourage kids to go for a walk in the woods,” Wilkes said before the program. “If they can go outside and sit quietly for about 10 minutes, kids don’t realize how many animals are around them.”

Wilkes and his wife took turns giving 30-minute presentations on each topic. The Wilkes present longer programs in elementary and middle schools and at summer camps.

Wilkes showed the children how butterflies lay eggs on the underside of leaves, protecting them from rain, wind and storms. He talked about the difference between butterflies and moths, showing framed specimens of each.

The blue iridescent morpho butterfly from South America drew lots of oohs and aahs.

Then Wilkes asked, “Who wants to touch a bug?” From an aquarium, he drew a 2½-inch long hissing cockroach from Madagascar. They hiss like a snake when threatened, but this one was quiet as a surprising number of kids touched it gently with their index fingers.

Wilkes then shifted to talking about birds, waving wings of a great blue heron above the children. Birds sing beautiful songs, he said.

The barred owl asks, “Who? Who cooks for you?” while the great horned owl simply asks, “Who?” He said that birds leave us signs all around — holes in wood from a woodpecker, tracks, eggs in nests.

Wilkes even showed an owl pellet — a hardened regurgitation of food the owl had eaten.

“It looks like poop but it’s not,” he noted.

At Wilkes’ request, the children quieted down in order to meet Captain, a 12-year-old blue and gold macaw who clearly loved the attention. Captain danced to “Macho Man” when Wilkes sang the chorus for him, and he ate a peanut so the children could see how he used his claws and beak.

“He’s quite the showman,” Wilkes said.

Afterward, the children got to touch the extensive display of bird, butterfly and insect specimens.

Rebecca Cline brought along her sons Carson, 5, and Harrison, 1½, who especially love birds and butterflies.

Julia Robinson brought her daughter, Jaelle, who just turned 3, after a friend told them about the program.

“We get books from the Imagination Library each month,” Robinson said of another Smart Start Rowan program.

This was the first trip to Smart Start Rowan for Emily Root and her daughter Kylie, 3. They were looking forward to the final presentation on coral reefs.

Root was eager to learn about all of Smart Start Rowan’s resources. The agency serves children ages birth to 5 throughout Rowan County.

Adrienne Howe brought her sons Lincoln, 3, and Ellis, 1, to the presentation.

“We like all the stuff at Smart Start Rowan,” Howe said. “It’s been a good supplementary education. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and I love getting out of the house. It saves my sanity. But it’s the best job in the world, too.”

A Walk in the Woods offers 20 programs. Many of its specimens are on permanent loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Wilkeses come from the museum world. She was a curator and he a director of science and technology at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Florida. They retired to Melody Wilkes’ home place in Mount Pleasant, but she wanted to continue hands-on education, her husband said.

The Wilkeses have a contract with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and give programs throughout the state and the northern counties in South Carolina. Wilkes never seems to tire of giving presentations to children.

“What you see in their eyes is remarkable,” he said.

For more information about A Walk in the Woods, visit

For more information about Smart Start Rowan, visit or visit its Facebook page.

Smart Start Rowan is a United Way member agency.