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Knee-High Naturalists Introduces World of Wonder

Binder Park Zoo’s Amanda Bailiff shows a representation of a reptile egg at Knee High Naturalists.

Alexander Shella, participates in a game during Knee High Naturalists at Binder Park Zoo.

Knee High Naturalists learn about reptiles and amphibians.

Carter Hansom, 3, pets a Blue Tongued Skink at Knee High Naturalists.

 get a visit from a Smooth Sided Toad.

The Knee High Naturalists are introduced to an albino python at Binder Park Zoo.

The Knee High Naturalists are introduced to an albino python at Binder Park Zoo.

The Knee High Naturalists are introduced to an albino python at Binder Park Zoo.

Binder Park Zoo’s Amanda Bailiff holds a Blue Tongued Skink at Knee High Naturalists.

Petting reptiles and learning about amphibians too -- it’s all in a day for Battle Creek's Knee-High Naturalists. 
A Binder Park Zoo program in Battle Creek that’s in its second year has been filling up with kids who come to learn about spiders, toads, snakes, animal tracks and other wonders of the natural world. It’s called Knee-High Naturalists, and it’s for children ages 1 to 5.
At a two-hour session on amphibians and reptiles in late March, a bloated-looking toad named Dorado squeaked as zoo educator Amanda Bailiff held him up in front of a room full of 19 children and the 20 or so adults with them.
"He’s kind of puffed up with air right now because he doesn’t really like to be held that much," Bailiff said of the smooth-sided toad, a species native to South American rainforests. As she took the toad around for close-up viewing, it was strictly a matter of look but don’t touch. "Wet your hands if you ever pick up a toad or frog or otherwise you can hurt their skin," Bailiff told the children. 
After Bailiff returned Dorado to his home behind a closed door, she appeared with an off-white lizard named Sheila. Oooohs and aaaaahs erupted around the room. But the big surprise came when Sheila shot out her long, forked tongue: It was as blue as a Colorado sky.
"She hisses when she’s scared," said Bailiff, "and if that doesn’t work, she sticks her bright-blue tongue out. If you’re a bright color, it usually means you’re dangerous. She’s harmless, though."
Sheila is a reptile known as a blue-tongued skink, native to Australia. As Bailiff took her around the room for the children to touch, she told them Sheila’s skin "feels a lot like corn on the cob."
Prior to the animal demonstrations, Bailiff had explained some of the differences between amphibians and reptiles. Amphibians, she said, have no hair or feathers, and their skin is usually smooth. "Unless you’re a toad, and then it can be kind of bumpy," she said. Amphibians lay their jelly-like eggs near water, and baby amphibians do not look like their parents.
"Do you know what we call baby frogs?" asked "Miss Amanda."
"Tadpoles," replied a chorus of tiny voices.
Reptiles, which include alligators, crocodiles, snakes, lizards and turtles, have scales on their skin that are shiny and dry and feel like plastic or "kind of like a basketball," Bailiff said. They lay their eggs on land, and the babies look exactly like their parents, she added, then showed the kids a photo of a hatching snake.
Bailiff, who has a degree in zoology from Michigan State, has been leading Knee-High Naturalists since it was first offered. Topics include not just animal life but plant life too. On April 10 and 11, for example, the children will "Get in Touch With Trees."
"I write all of the curriculum," said Bailiff, "and during every program we go outside. We’re just giving kids the thought that it’s OK to play outside. Even though it might not be sunny and 80 degrees, there are things you can discover any time of the year."
That’s an important lesson, especially when so many kids spend hours of their day in front of TV and computer screens and many schools have cut back on recess to allow for more classroom instruction.
Knee-High Naturalists attracts kids from all around the region, according to Bailiff, with some coming from as far away as Lansing. "Potter Park Zoo, in Lansing, doesn’t do anything like this," she said.
At the March 28 session on reptiles and amphibians, some children were attending Knee-High Naturalists for the first time. Others were making a regular visit. One 3-year-old was accompanied by his grandfather because his grandmother doesn’t like snakes. "She usually brings Jaden, but I’m elected because they’re doing snakes today," said granddad Rick Peterson, of Battle Creek.
A giant python turned out to be the "very special friend" the children got to meet that day. After seeing the toad and lizard demos and pretending to be hopping frogs, the kids walked — or were carried — from the Zoo Administration Building out into the zoo, past prairie dogs, peacocks and red kangaroos. One peacock scratched his head with his claw, then let out a call with warm breath that turned the morning air to steam. Sun filtered through the tall evergreens, and pine cones proved irresistible to some of the children.
At the Conservation Discovery Center, Bailiff needed the help of two other zoo staffers to hold up a 10-foot-long, 80-pound Burmese python named Sierra. Her yellow color, Bailiff explained, is not the normal color of this type of snake, but Sierra is an albino and has pink eyes.
As Bailiff told the children they would have a chance to touch Sierra but needed to stay away from her head, the snake wound its tail around the back of Bailiff’s leg. "They can bite," Bailiff said, "but she doesn’t usually try. She’s a nice snake." Just then, as if to make her a liar, Sierra wound her tail between Bailiff’s legs and up toward her waist. The adults laughed. "Never a dull day at the zoo," said Bailiff, blushing.
Most of the children seemed unafraid of petting the massive reptile. "She’s actually very soft," said Bailiff. "I think she’s softer than the skink." Up close, Sierra’s yellow and white skin looked much like the surface of a Lego piece but was wonderfully soft and smooth.
After everyone who wanted a turn had received one, the group headed back to the classroom. For the last half hour, the kids had a chance to hang out and play. Some headed for a sand table filled with little plastic animals, one boy threw bean bags through a painted alligator’s mouth and others sat down to color crocodiles and other critters. A couple of adults helped their children or grandchildren make origami frogs.
Kay McKinnon, of Battle Creek, has brought her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Breslyn, to the program three times. "She loves it. ... It’s really cool," McKinnon said. Even two huge spiders at a previous session didn’t scare Breslyn, said her mother.
Veterinary dermatologist Alondra Martin, of Richland, brought her nearly 4-year-old son, Paxton, for the first time. He wanted to see amphibians and reptiles, she said. "It’s really good," she said. "Amanda’s great."   
Although Knee-High Naturalists ended for the season, a similar program is offered in the summer. It’s called F.A.W.N., which stands for First Adventures With Nature. Bailiff writes the curriculum for F.A.W.N too, but the classes are led by other members of the staff because Bailiff is busy presenting animal demonstrations, training teen volunteers and working with summer campers.
"It gets to be a zoo around here," she said, pun intended.
For more information
To learn more about Knee-High Naturalists or F.A.W.N. or to sign up for the programs, visit here or call Amanda Bailiff at (269) 979-1351 ext. 133.

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