When she caught the catfish, 6-year-old Lily Keathly fell backward as she reeled it in.
But she quickly recovered and stood proudly for a picture with her first catch. Then she put the fish back in the water.
After Skyler Powell, also 6, landed his first fish, he couldn’t quit smiling.
Adult volunteer Jay Jackson, stationed on the bank, helped the children bait hooks, cast lines and pull in fish.
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Jackson also had the time of his life.
“Oh my gosh, it was the best,” Jackson said. “I have no idea how many fish we caught, but seeing all those kids catching their first fish, you have no idea how special that was.”
Lily, Skyler and Jackson were some of the 300 or so children and adults who came to Matthews Squirrel Lake Park recently for Kids in Nature Day.
The event was sponsored by the town of Matthews, Habitat and Wildlife Keepers, Matthews Woman’s Club Service League and Great Outdoors University. It was designed to get children and their families outside to explore nature.
Some children tried their hand at geocaching. Others helped build bluebird and brown-headed nuthatch nesting boxes, explored nature trails and streams, or visited booths displaying animal skulls, live snakes and turtles and ducks.
Many also watched an opossum release.
HAWK’s Leslie Wieser opened the door of a portable kennel to release four 3-month old opossums that had been rehabilitated by Animal Rehabilitators of the Carolinas. As the crowd watched, the opossums cautiously exited the kennel near an area of natural brush and slowly crawled out of sight.
Wieser, an organizer of Kids in Nature Day, said she received lots of positive comments from parents and believes all children picked up something from their time outside.
“Whether it was looking for a particular bug, catching their first fish or learning what a bluejay looked like, they all learned something,” Wieser said. “I think that being in nature, even for a few hours, helped them develop an appreciation for conservation, especially with the opossum release.
“Even putting a nesting box together and knowing that it will become a home to birds is important. It gives them buy-in if they can do these things themselves.”
Wieser said the groups hope to schedule a Kids in Nature Day on an annual basis. Until then, she said, there are many free or inexpensive activities and organizations to get involved with that will keep children outside and learning about nature.
Such activities include:
• HAWK meets 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month, September-May, at the Matthews Community Center,www.habitatsteward.org
• Mecklenburg Audubon Society,www.meckbirds.org
• Carolina Young Birders Club,www.carolinayoungbirdersclub.org
• Four Mile Creek or other greenways in Mecklenburg County.
• Fish at Squirrel Lake Park in Matthews, borrowing poles and other fishing equipment from the Matthews Community Center. Details: Matthews Parks Manager Michael King, 704-708-1288.