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Mongabay has released a beta version of a new education site to inspire and inform kids on ecology, wildlife, and conservation. The new site is located at kids.mongabay.com and all content is freely available.
Mongabay Kids includes environmental news articles, lessons, and activities geared toward specific age groups, from elementary to middle school. The site leverages content from Mongabay’s main news site and extensive library of nature photos.
Mongabay Kids features a pair of mascots that “host” the site: A Ceiba tree named Sofia Ceiba and a dung beetle named Doug Beetle. Sofia Ceiba and Doug Beetle introduce kids to topics in conservation and wildlife conservationists via a series of illustrated virtual “adventures” and “field trips”.
Mongabay Kids was developed by biologists Megan Strauss and David Brown. Strauss is an illustrator and wildlife biologist whose PhD examined factors driving giraffe population decline in Serengeti, Tanzania. Brown is a biologist, wildlife conservationist, and environmental educator who has conducted research on giraffe population genetics, which helped contribute to the discovery of multiple giraffe species.
“The new site builds on Mongabay’s mission to build appreciation of plants, wildlife, and wild places,” said Strauss and Brown. “We aim to connect kids and educators with nature in an engaging and realistically positive way. We want to inspire them to get outside in backyards, parks, gardens, protected areas, or whatever outdoor space is accessible to them.
“Nature provides countless opportunities for education and resilience-building, and being in nature has tremendous mental health benefits. And it is just plain fun!”
Strauss and Brown chose a ceiba tree and a dung beetle as characters for the site because of the ecological and cultural importance in the places they inhabit.
“We have a series of comics introducing why ceiba trees and dung beetles are ecologically and culturally important, and why they are just darn cool,” they said. “Plants and invertebrates are the base of our food chains and ecosystems, and we celebrate that with our host characters.”
Strauss and Brown plan to continue adding new content on a daily basis. The aspiration is that Mongabay Kids will eventually develop standards-based materials for grade levels from Kindergarten to high school as well as multimedia and reports from the field.
“If we can find the resources, we would like to build a global, inclusive, and diverse team of educators, science writers, and graphic artists to create features that will bring the natural world alive to kids and develop our conservation mission,” they said.
Strauss and Brown talked about the new initiative in a March conversation with Mongabay-News. Their responses follow.
What inspired your interest in nature and wildlife?
Megan: Born in scenic South Africa, I grew up spoiled by natural beauty, with parents whose love of nature was contagious! By far my most memorable childhood experiences were our camping and wildlife viewing expeditions in the biodiverse protected areas of southern Africa.
I had a soft spot for the big cats, especially the spotted ones, and I would sit with eyes glued out the window of our station wagon waiting excitedly for my next sighting. More than anything, I wanted to be a game ranger — someone who manages and protects wildlife and habitats. I liked the ranger uniform, too!
My interest in conservation was further cemented when I learned at a young age that the Southern white rhino had nearly gone extinct. (It has since recovered.) The notion that humans could easily drive other species out of existence was jarring to me. I used the pocket money I’d been saving to buy a rhino soft toy to support white rhino conservation.
I have since passed that toy on to my own kids. When I see it, it reminds me of the determination I felt in that moment to contribute to conservation in some way.
I’ve been privileged to have some incredible research experiences in the USA and in Tanzania, where I carried out PhD research on the drivers of giraffe population dynamics in the Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti has a rhythm of its own, and I can still feel the hum of the migrating wildebeest herds and hear the roars of the lions at night.
Life has since taken me to Australia, opening up an entirely new natural world of towering mountain ash trees and creatures like the incredible lyrebird, which mimics other bird calls (and chainsaws). I love exploring nature and the way it both calms and energizes me.
Children everywhere should have opportunities to benefit from nature, to be inspired, and to learn how interconnected we all are.
David: When I was four years old I talked about wanting to go to Africa to see giraffes and elephants, and that desire never went away. I was also fascinated by the birds and lizards in our yard and always wanting to go to the zoo. Being a zoologist and going to Africa to study giraffes was all I wanted to do when I grew up. It took a couple of decades, but I did make it happen.
Using population genetics, I helped discover that there are multiple giraffe species across Africa instead of the one species that people assumed there were. I have been lucky to study many other species in addition to giraffes including cockatoo evolution, parrot ecology in Guatemala, insect and plant ecology at Mono Lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and rare plant communities across California.
When my nieces and nephews started getting interested in animals, I realized that all of the cool conservation science in the world was ultimately not going to work unless kids knew and loved the natural world. I set out to go beyond being a scientist to become a nature writer and environmental educator.
What is the purpose of this new site?
The new site builds on Mongabay’s mission to build appreciation of plants, wildlife, and wild places. The audience for the new site is children of elementary and primary school age, and their parents, educators, and communities. We aim to connect kids, families, and educators with nature in an engaging and realistically positive way.
We want to inspire them to get outside in backyards, parks, gardens, protected areas, or whatever outdoor space is accessible to them. Nature provides countless opportunities for education and resilience-building, and being in nature has tremendous mental health benefits. And it is just plain fun!
Kids love animals, both their pets and the wild animals that live in their neighborhoods and on the other side of the world. Research shows though that most people have little idea that even the most beloved and popular wild animals like big cats, polar bears, elephants, and giraffes face serious conservation challenges in the wild.
Creating meaningful awareness about the conservation challenges that our favorite animals and habitats face, and engaging kids and their parents and educators to become involved in the conservation of these species, is a critical conservation action.
Another essential goal for Mongabay Kids is to help make plants visible and relevant to kids. Studies show that most people aren’t aware of the plants around them. There is a community of plant scientists and educators around the world doing amazing work, and we hope to help bring that love of plants to our audience.
What are some of the key features of the site?
Mongabay Kids has two mascots that “host” the site, a Ceiba tree named Sofia Ceiba and a dung beetle named Doug Beetle. We have a series of comics introducing why Ceiba trees and dung beetles are ecologically and culturally important, and why they are just darn cool.
Plants and invertebrates are the base of our food chains and ecosystems, and we celebrate that with our host characters.
Every week we take readers on a “Field Trip” to visit a nature conservationist and their work. We interview scientists, nature book writers and illustrators, photographers, and people in other fields working to promote and protect the natural world, and we take the readers into their work through photos.
We have Field Trip adventures with a primatologist studying chimps in Uganda, a team finding ways to help save leopards in Sri Lanka, a geneticist in Tanzania working on giraffes, and many others to come.
We have Sofia Ceiba’s “Lab”, which is full of activities such as art, craft, puzzles and games, many of them related to the Field Trip adventures. The Lab also houses resources for educators, including lesson plans and other activities.
We have Doug Beetle’s “Wild Library” full of stories about animals and plants of all kinds, exploring basic facts about them, tales of newly discovered species, and paleo species that lived long ago.
What do you envision for this site going forward?
Our goal is to create a fun and interesting site where kids can learn about their favorite plants and animals and find meaningful ways to help conserve them, and meet new organisms that they have never heard of or imagined. Kids all over the world love plants and animals and want to help save them, and we plan to cover conservation stories and go on Field Trip adventures in all parts of Earth.
Eventually we would like to expand the site to explore some beloved species in depth and show how conservationists and local environmentalists are figuring out how to solve some of the really tough conservation challenges like the illegal wildlife trade, habitat destruction, and human-wildlife conflict.
Those subjects can be really overwhelming to learn about, but there are also people finding realistic solutions, and there are ways that kids can contribute, too. Taking action helps empower kids and can reduce the burden of the environmental issues they are now exposed to in everyday life.
We also hope the site might become a platform to host and highlight the extensive environmental educational materials that expert educators and conservationists around the world have created.
The current site is aimed at early education and primary school students, a critical age for connecting with nature, but we would like to create programming for middle school and high school-aged young people too eventually. This age group has shown tremendous strength and initiative in taking meaningful action to tackle environmental and climate issues.
We also hope to develop more multimedia content, including videos.
What kind of help/resources do you need to realize those ambitions?
If we can find the resources, we would like to build a global, inclusive and diverse team of educators, science writers, and graphic artists to create features that will bring the natural world alive to kids and develop our conservation mission.
We would also like to explore partnerships with other organizations that want to share their environmental education content with Mongabay’s large readership.