Nature center offers free programs to help families explore Delaware

In order to spread education and awareness about the Inland Bays and wetlands in the Delaware area so that the public is compelled to explore, appreciate and preserve their surroundings, the Bethany Beach Nature Center offers interactive and hands-on programs for locals and visitors of all ages.

Beginning at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday, at 807 Garfield Parkway, the Nature Center encourages families to partake in free activities that revolve around independent and collaborative learning in a natural setting.

On Mystery Guest Wednesdays, children and families meet a surprise guest — a person, place or thing — during their visit. To continue the theme of surprise and discovery, the rest of the day’s format is unplanned.

When guests visit the Nature Center on Green Thumbs Up Thursdays, they will spend their time outdoors in the gardens, learning how to plant, harvest and prepare crops. Also during their visit, they will participate in a garden scavenger hunt to explore different kinds of plants and to familiarize themselves with the nature surrounding them.

For additional scavenger hunts at the Nature Center, Fridays are designated Scavenger Hunt Snack Time for participants to go on a guided scavenger hunt with a snack afterward.

If children want to engage in seasonal activities with a scientific and natural foundation, they can visit on Kidz Nature Adventure Saturdays. Nancy Lucy, the director of the Nature Center, who runs and supervises every program, posts the themes for each Saturday on the Town of Bethany Beach website. However, she said, the activities posted are obscure so that visitors are intrigued and motivated to attend.

“Saturday is always something that is very specific,” Lucy said. “It’s always something different. It’s usually a hands-on, simple science activity.”

To supplement Kidz Nature Adventure Saturdays, guests are encouraged to meet at the James Farm Ecological Preserve every third Saturday to learn about the creatures that inhabit the Indian River Bay.

During those programs, anywhere from 60 to 100 attendees learn about and explore a wide variety of nature and wildlife within the Delaware area.

With a focus on the Rehoboth Bay, the Indian River Bay and the Little Assawoman Bay, which comprise the Inland Bays, participants become more informed about wildlife in the bays and how storms and climate change affect them. The programs also raise awareness about the importance of the bays to humans’ health, safety and happiness.

“When we have storms, they absorb most of the flooding waters,” Lucy said. “The inland bays have all the nutrient-dense soils we need. They also have the flora and fauna that is very important to have a balanced ecosystem.”

In addition to information on the bays, the programs introduce participants to new facts and details about wetlands, marshes, native plants, monarch butterflies, horseshoe crabs, diamondback terrapins, bats, cow-nose rays and more.

“It’s right in their own back yard, and they’re probably going to learn something that they didn’t know,” Lucy said.

The Town of Bethany Beach and the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays created the programs so that the public can digress from their daily routines in favor of challenging themselves to learn something new while also gaining an appreciation for the environment.

“It’s a total asset to the community to be immersed in a natural setting,” Lucy said.

Marco Hernandez, a resident of Fenwick Island who has attended the Nature Center and its programs four times over the past five years, said he gained a larger appreciation for the environment and learned about the role of nature for a successful society.

“Nature connection is the feeling you get while you are in a program there,” Hernandez said.

With hopes of sparking individuals’ interest in the natural world, Lucy and other Nature Center employees said they hope the programs will urge people to preserve, conserve and protect nature for future generations to enjoy and to reap its mental, physical and spiritual benefits.

“It’s important to understand why we need to be aware and observant of our natural world,” Lucy said.

Natural learning, inside and out

To help people experience this learning opportunity, the Nature Center offers indoor and outdoor exhibits to the public.

Inside the cottage, individuals can virtually explore the Inland Bays watershed, from the headwater streams through the maritime forests and across the salt marshes to the bays, with an exhibit that uses I-Wall technology.

On the 26 acres outside of the Nature Center, trails take visitors through forests and marshes, and signs are displayed along the paths to inform people about the habitats. With 3 acres of forested uplands, 9 acres of freshwater wetlands and 14 acres of tidal wetlands, Nature Center employees said visitors are rarely bored.

Because guests of the Nature Center learn about a wide range of topics, Nature Center employees said the programs offer educational and entertainment experiences for people of all ages.

“It is a family experience,” Lucy said. “It’s not where you go and drop your children off, so it’s always an adventure and always something they are going to discover in nature.”

Another reason why visitors are constantly learning during the programs is because of their spontaneous nature. To keep family members committed to learning, excited about the programs and engaged with one another, the programs’ activities are only revealed once people arrive.

“We try to make them have an a-ha moment and a discovery moment,” Lucy said.

After the activities are announced, the program continues to follow an unstructured schedule, with surprise discoveries. While participating in scientific experiments and learning new information, participants remain curious and attentive, according to Lucy.

“It’s a little bit scientific when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and then when it happens, you all get excited , and then you have that bonding experience,” Lucy said.

Adhering to the spirit of discovery and active learning, Lucy said she guides the programs, providing examples and instructions so that people learn for themselves, through imitation and application. When children ask questions, Lucy said, she responds to their curiosity with more questions, rather than answers.

“I’m not a teacher,” Lucy said. “They’re not a student. We’re all in this together. We’re all learning at the same time, and I think that provides a kind of excitement, instead of somebody preaching from the choir.”

Since 2009, the Nature Center has been inspiring education and awareness about nature with its programs. The programs are made possible through funding from the Town of Bethany Beach and the Center for the Inland Bays.

In addition to the weekly programs, the Nature Center employees encourage individuals to stop by during the summer months, from June 18 until Oct. 1, during their hours — 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday — to participate in the drop-in activity tables and unguided scavenger hunts.

The Nature Center employees encourage everyone to learn about the environment in a setting that prioritizes active learning all year ’round.

“You’re coming for an adventure,” Lucy said. “You’re coming for an experience in nature. It’s not something you have to memorize and be tested on. If you have mistakes, that’s OK.”