Through a child’s eyes

The “Most Important Things” book project brings the islands alive through the eyes, and senses, of local fourth graders.

When adults gaze out at the Apostle Islands, they may see lighthouses, or a chance for adventure, or the relaxation of miles of sandy beaches to comb. But what does a fourth grader see when she visits the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore? What catches their eyes? What are the most important things in our park to them?

A new book, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore: Most Important Things, may just hold the answers. Born out of a collaboration between dedicated fourth grade teachers and National Park Service rangers, the “Most Important Things” project saw several classes of exuberant, creative Bayfield fourth graders traveling to Stockton Island and Little Sand Bay in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, as well as Beaver Hollow Nature Preserve, and the Frog Bay Tribal National Park. There, these young artists, explorers, and naturalists were asked “listen to the leaves fall” and count waves, to identify animal tracks on the beach, to make a rope model of Lake Superior to begin to understand its immense size. Each student was asked to observe nature closely, taught the Ojibwe names and meanings of the things around them, and to record their impressions of it all in their own words and drawings. 

Stockton Island: The important thing about Stockton Island is its one of the Apostle Islands. It has singing sand, it has really large rocks that you can climb on, the woods are amazing, really big and beautiful, and the air is so fresh that you can almost taste it. But the important thing about Stockton Island  is that it is one of the Apostle Islands and I got to go there.

The result is a fun, colorful, and playful 30-page book offering a unique glimpse of our park unlike any other in park literature. Not a guidebook to trails and campsites, this is a kind of trail guide to wonder as seen through the eyes and other senses of children. Here the reader will encounter ice that “tastes weird” and the sounds of wolf howls, bird tracks on the beach, and the sounds of a partridge which is, according to one young writer, “like a drumroll.”

The most important thing about nibi is it is life.
Nibi is fun to swim in because it is refreshing.
Nibi is the color of the sky but darker.
Nibi here is really cold.
Nibi is natural.
The most important thing about nibi is that it is life. Nibi is an ojibwe way of saying water. Nibi is water and water is nibi

These pages will have adults looking through new eyes at a place they thought they knew, noticing the color of the trees, the “bumpy and uneven” texture of sand dunes, the colors that dance in the campfires that “can be dangerous but also help you make s’mores.”

Animal Tracks: Bimikawaanan means Animal Tracks in Ojibwe. Animal tracks are really important because they can tell us a lot about the animal that made them and what the animal is. On Stockton Island we saw bear tracks in the wet sand. We saw other animal tracks.  Following tracks in the mud to see the animal that made them was fun. Looking at tracks I wondered, what animal made them, its color and where it lives. Does it have a pack of the same animals? Does it have cubs? Does it fly or stay on ground? What does it eat and what predators does it have? Does it hibernate and live in a cold place or does it go to a hot place? Is it little or big? Can it run really fast? Does it live in water or on land? Does it kill animals or not? Does it kill people or do people kill the animal for the skin? The important thing about animal tracks is that maybe I can answer all these questions by learning more about animal tracks in the Apostle Islands.

More than just a fun day of exploring, the “Most Important Things” project helps connect young people to the natural world around them. In the Introduction to the book, renowned nature educator Richard Louv writes, “Moving, breathing, feeling, and exploring nature creates lasting connections to the natural world and the value of wildness … If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

Sand Dunes: The most important thing about sand dunes is that they are sand and free. They are yellow, a warm and exciting color. They are bumpy and uneven, smooth in some parts, shiny like a bright summer sky, and golden like the nice, warm, sun. But, the most important thing about sand dunes is that they are sand.

Funded in part by the Friends of the Apostle Islands, through the “Strong Parks/Strong Communities” grant of the National Park Foundation, just enough copies of Most Important Things” were printed to ensure that each student received one. A small, informal ceremony was held outside of Bayfield Elementary School to commemorate the book’s publication.

Steve Ballou
Steve Ballou

National Park ranger Steve Ballou who worked with the students in the field and on the book says “It was heartwarming to watch each student page immediately to their page and then slowly go through the entire book.”

He continued, “Hopefully, the lessons of nature, wilderness, and preservation will instill lasting respect personal stewardship for the natural world. Being able to publish the book that students made, chronicling their adventures with stories and art allowed them to relive the thrill of their experiences and appreciate the gifts of stewardship alive in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.” 

And, as one young writer wrote, “you get to make s’mores. Yummmmmy!”

Interpretive Ranger Steve Ballou gave a presentation about this book project entitled, “Through the eyes of 4th graders,” during the recent Resource Stewardship Symposium. Watch that here.


Jeff Rennicke is Executive Director of the Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. He is also an educator, outdoor adventure travel writer and photographer.

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