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A photograph of Charles Baisden and Marina Mertz at their display at the 4-H Club

SSBG Interviews Local Leaders of the Youth Naturalist Program

The Board of the Sunshine State Biodiversity Group is pleased to sponsor a new program this year – The Florida Youth Naturalist Program. This program is developed to encourage a love of nature in our young people, designed for school children ages 10-13 and supported by the Leon County Extension Office and the local 4-H Club. 


We are incredibly lucky to live in North Florida, one of the most biodiverse regions in the country. SSBG is proud to share our love of this beautiful area with the young people in our community, and to ensure continuation of the stewardship of this location. We are proud to sponsor the inaugural year of the program with the hopes of forming long-lasting relationships with families in the Tallahassee area who are invested in learning more about our local environment. SSBG was recently featured in the Tallahassee Democrat for our sponsorship of this program in an article about the benefits of an outdoor education: "4-H Youth Naturalist Club gears up to give kids more green time."

In September of this year (2023), the Leon County Extension Office held an Open House that introduced families in the wider Leon County community to the many varied programs that are available for our students. It was very well-attended, with over 500 people appearing at the event. Valerie Mendez Stansly, one of the 4-H Youth Development organizers, told us, “We have a great and diverse group of kids. Through our (expansion) efforts, we were able to reach more Spanish-speaking families. One youth is signed up for not only the Youth Naturalist program, but also for our Wild About Woods Clubs. His mother let me know he has not stopped talking about Nature since starting the club.” This is the kind of enthusiasm we like to hear!

A photograph of several young children and their parents at the Youth Naturalist display at the 4-H Fair

We recently interviewed the two club leaders, Charlie Baisden and Marina Mertz about the program:

SSBG: How did you come to be involved in 4-H?  How did the Florida Youth Naturalist Program get off its feet?

Charles Baisden: After I retired in 2010, I decided I would pursue one of my lifelong dreams to become a park ranger.  I was very fortunate to obtain a position at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park and serve as a park ranger for about 10 years.  After completion of Ranger Academy, I enrolled in the Florida Master Naturalist Program through the University of Florida to increase my knowledge and skills as a park ranger.  This program was an extremely enjoyable and beneficial experience.

In 2021, the University of Florida 4-H Youth Development Program and the Florida Master Naturalist the Program joined forces to create the Florida Youth Naturalist Program for youth ages 10-13.  The Florida Youth Naturalist Program is patterned after the Florida Master Naturalist curriculum.  Students will learn about the 3 major ecosystems of Florida, the representative plant and animal species of each ecosystem and major ecological concepts.  Having completed the Florida Master Naturalist course, I knew how beneficial this program could be for our youth in gaining a greater appreciation and understanding of the wonders of nature.


Through the Leon County Extension, I was presented the opportunity to start a brand new 4-H Club using the Florida Youth Naturalist Curriculum.  Over a period of a few months this past spring and summer the club was approved and organized, leaders recruited, funding secured, and meeting and field trip dates finalized.  On September 14th, 2023, the first meeting was held.  We have 10 enthusiastic students eager to explore our Florida ecosystems.

A photograph of a young boy on a dock pulling up a net with an adult instructor

SSBG: Tell us a bit about the goals and aims of the program, and how the curriculum and activities set out to reach them.

Charles Baisden: According to the Florida Youth Naturalist curriculum guide:


The Florida Youth Naturalist Program targets youth ages 10-13 as the prime audience for this curriculum.  Young people in this age group are still discovering the world around them and they have a natural curiosity, a thirst for knowledge, and a developing sense of responsibility.  


The Florida Youth Naturalist Program curriculum is designed for young people who will greatly benefit from exploring and learning about the natural environment that surrounds their daily living.  In Florida, native plants and animals depend on the diverse environment systems that make up Florida’s unique landscape.  Additionally, we adults who live in the state of Florida have a responsibility to be aware of how their daily lives affect the world around them and the opportunity to pass this sense of responsibility for our natural world to our young people. In the Florida Youth Naturalist curriculum students will take a journey through Florida’s major ecosystems, from the uplands, through freshwater systems, and the coastal systems.  The club’s program will include classes emphasizing hands-on experiences and field trips exploring these three unique Florida ecosystems.

A group of student naturalists on the beach examining plants and wildlife on Florida's gulf coast

SSBG: What do you think are the most important skills and attitudes that youth naturalists have to gain from the program?

Marina Mertz: Youth Naturalists will gain the basic vocabulary and ideas of ecology that they can carry with them for a lifetime as they become our future leaders. Informed about habitats, communities and ecosystems that we occupy and effect with our actions daily, leading to more care for those places. Our youth naturalist will learn to question what they see in the environment and to then examine those answers in relation to the living and nonliving components. They won’t just be able to identify a bald cypress, they will see a bald cypress and know that it needs a certain amount of freshwater, the animals that use the cypress, the type of soil, other plants that might be seen in that area and the human impacts on its habitat.

A photograph of youth naturalists looking at a crab trap with an instructor on a boat

SSBG: What do you hope that those enrolled in the program learn about conservation and ecology in a local Leon County as well as within a wider Florida context? How does the program tie their experience to the natural world locally to their relation to it in the wider world? In short, how does teaching community-based engagement with ecology serve as a foundation to wider and future engagements with the environment?

Marina Mertz: In the youth naturalist program participants really gain a deeper understanding of the world around them and the place that they hold within it. They can take this knowledge and translate it into action around conservation. They will learn the skills to examine the environment they are in and how it relates to all living organisms and how they interact with each other allowing them to draw conclusions around issues of climate change, habitat fragmentation, pollution and more.  

A photograph of youth naturalists looking at a tank of recently captured fish on a boat

SSBG: Were you happy with how the open house went? And could you share any interactions with parents or kids that particularly stood out?

Charles Baisden: The Leon County Extension Youth Open House held September 9th of this year was a tremendous success with several hundred parents and youth in attendance.  One attendee, “Very successful Open House! I was particularly impressed by the diversity of the crowd.  Great turnout!”  I could not have said it better myself.

A photograph of the front cover of the Florida Youth Naturalist Program Instructor Field Guide featuring a colorful drawing of a manatee

Find out more about this and other programs offered by the University of Florida IFAS Extension 4H Clubs.

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