Naturalist brings mobile classroom to thousands of children

Melody Bell Wilkes shows a box turtle to students at Charlotte’s Cranfield Academy Child Development Center.
Melody Bell Wilkes shows a box turtle to students at Charlotte’s Cranfield Academy Child Development Center. JOE HABINA

When children can’t get to the woods, Melody Bell Wilkes brings the woods to them.

In the growing digital and computer age, Wilkes, a Mount Pleasant naturalist, gets frustrated that children are more likely to learn about nature through the Internet and their smart phones than by experiencing it first-hand.

Therefore Wilkes takes her show of small animals, pelts and skeletons on the road, loading up her minivan with the blue macaw decal on the back window, and visiting schools and other child development centers.

Wilkes estimates that her educational awareness program, named “A Walk in the Woods,” connected with 10,000 children in 2014, presenting more than 200 programs in places that had her drive about 35,000 miles. She says the number of animals or species used in her programs, living or preserved, is too numerous for her to count.

“It’s important for them to be able to touch animals,” said Wilkes, whose resume reads like the credits on a Discovery Channel show. “They can learn about things that stay in their memory block. It’s almost a magical moment for them. You can hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from them.”

Wilkes grew up in Cabarrus County and “always had a love for nature.” Inspired by her father and trips to the ocean for scuba diving and to the mountains for skiing, Wilkes graduated from Mount Pleasant High and UNC Charlotte, studying biology and art.

Drawn by the beach, the ocean and their wildlife, Wilkes moved to Florida in 1985 and worked for The Museum of Discovery and Science in Ft. Lauderdale for 15 years. She has raised and released loggerhead turtles on the Atlantic coast and operated air-boat tours in the Everglades.

As a reward for her work in the Take Pride in America Campaign while on staff at Hampton Pines Park in North Lauderdale, Wilkes was honored by President Ronald Reagan at the White House. The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens is among the locations her nature-themed artwork has been on display.

Wilkes met her husband, who also worked for The Museum of Discovery and Science, and they started raising a family. Melody Wilkes has the most “unnatural” name in her family: Her husband is named Woody (short for Woodward) and their son is named River.

In 2000, the Wilkes family returned to Melody’s native land because they were interested in Mount Pleasant’s quality of life and in having River attend Cabarrus County Schools.

Three years later, Wilkes founded A Walk in the Woods, using animals and artifacts she has either collected on her own or on loan through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A Walk in the Woods program includes an array of animals and interactive displays. Wilkes specializes in reptiles, exotic insects and coral-reef animals.

“If I do a kids’ insect program, the first thing they want to do is go outside and find an insect,” said Wilkes.

Last week, Wilkes presented her “Animal Crackers” program to classes of 3- to 4-year-olds and 4- to 5-year-olds at Charlotte’s Cranfield Academy Child Development Center. With animal skins and skulls as a backdrop, Wilkes introduced her lesson by explaining the importance of animals to the environment.

“They’re everywhere,” exclaimed one boy.

After the children helped Wilkes unload her “blue animal mystery bag” of stuffed animals, they watched a slide show in which they learned lessons about interacting with wildlife. Wilkes then introduced the true stars of her presentation: live animals.

One by one, Wilkes pulled them out from their mobile homes. Skedaddle the sandfish wiggled his way into hiding in a container of sand and Ms. Hiss, the hissing cockroach, hissed and skittered her way around a piece of poster board. Children were invited to touch a box turtle, green iguana and a python.

“Do you see how she slithers her tongue?” said Wilkes. “That’s how she smells you.”

That was worth plenty of oohs and aahs.

Joe Habina is a freelance writer:

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For more information about A Walk in the Woods, go to or call 704-436-9048