This story ran in the Living section on Sept. 16, 2009. I also wrote the watershed exhibit in the new Discovery Center in Access Points a few weeks ago.
Emory Halford spotted it first — a brown, fuzzy object, out of the ordinary among the rocks and dirt along the creek where they were camping. He leaned in closer and called his parents to investigate. It was a bat, deceased, but still of great value to a 7-year-old boy.
“A lot of moms would not be taking that bat home,” said Mendy Halford, of Atlanta. “But we found a shovel, put it in a Ziploc bag. He had to take it to the Nature Exchange. How can you say, ‘No?’ ”
The Nature Exchange is a new program in the Chattahoochee Nature Center’s new Discovery Center, which opened in June. Amateur naturalists of any age can bring in objects to earn points and trade toward another object. Enough pinecones can equal a gemstone, a snakeskin can be bartered for a preserved insect. Knowledge, though, is worth more than a good find — traders can cash in with research or a creative project presented to a Nature Exchange naturalist.
The Nature Exchange began in 1984 as a project of the Science North in Sudbury, Ontario, and the idea has spread to other North American museums, zoos and nature centers.
“There’s nothing in here you can’t touch,” Discovery Center Curator Rachel Greene said. “The goal is still to get them excited about nature, to get them outside. When they learn and love it, they begin to protect it.”
The Nature Exchange sets its own economy of supply and demand. Hickory nuts and acorns trade for 15 points, longleaf pinecones for 100, deer antlers up to 10,000, the hull of a saguaro cactus for 18,000 points. There are some objects the Nature Exchange can’t accept, like live animals and government-protected species. But even trades gone wrong can yield a lesson: classes are urged to bring one group object, but 30 students who each bring a pinecone might have a discussion about moderation and responsible trading.
The new Discovery Center also includes hands-on exhibitions about the Chattahoochee watershed, information about water supplies and land protection. A theater inside is set to open Oct. 1.
The old nature center was smaller, “well-loved” and decades old with Boy Scout-built exhibits. The new one offers more context for an outdoor education on the center’s 127 acres, said Chris Robie, the environmental education specialist at High Meadows School in Roswell. Robie hasn’t yet taken classes to the new center, but visited herself and is starting to develop ways it can work for students.
Children love anything they can touch, Robie said, and The Nature Exchange and new exhibits will only add to that.
“How much more hands-on can you get?” Robie said. “I wish that every kid could have that experience, going down the Chattahoochee, putting their foot in that cold river, picking up the litter, seeing your part of that big ecosystem.”
Emory Halford has racked up 2,450 points so far. His 4-year-old brother, Preston, has earned 675 without yet being able to read or research. The family is hitting the Nature Center about once a week, and the kids’ nature-searching skills are getting sharper.
“We like being outside, but I think the point system thing, it’s kind of challenging him to find interesting things,” Mendy Halford said. “We’re still eyeballing a large hornet’s nest way up in a tree in our yard.”
Want to go? Chattahoochee Nature Center, 9135 Willeo Road, Roswell. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon- 5p.m. Sunday. Free for members and children ages 2 and younger, $5 for children ages 3-12, $6 for seniors, $8 for adults. No pets allowed. 770-992-2055, Chattnaturecenter.org.