The Wonder of Nature
Many moons ago, when we first moved to southwest Missouri, I worked at a remarkable nature education museum and aquarium. Maybe you have heard of Wonders of Wildlife. It re-opened a couple of years ago after receiving a major facelift, and it has taken Springfield and America by storm. Having traversed its beautiful pathways with my kids more than a couple times, I have to say it is an amazing place to see fish and wildlife up close while learning about their natural histories and the habitats they call home. I can see why it won “Best New Attraction in America” and “America’s Best Aquarium” by the readers of USA TODAY.
Its official name is Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium. It spans 350,000 square feet and is located next to Bass Pro Shops here in Springfield. Inside, visitors are introduced to 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds, and immersive Wildlife Galleries. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the Director of Conservation Programs, Misty Mitchell. It had been awhile since I last spoke with Misty, so we got all caught up :) We talked about a lot of things...our kids, nature, teaching, and homeschooling. Plus she filled me in on what she gets to do at WOW to help educate the next generation of conservationists. She really has an awesome job!
Misty has been working at WOW for the past 18 years, and she is responsible for ALL of the education and volunteer opportunities at Wonders of Wildlife and Dogwood Canyon (a 10,000 acre nature park about an hour south of Springfield). Misty has a BS in Wildlife Conservation and a Master’s in Business, with a passion for education. She started her career in animal care as a keeper for 12 years, then curator for 4 years. She says, “My passion has always been to educate, so when the ability to work in education was given to me I made the move and have never looked back. It is the best of both worlds as I educate with animals every day.” Misty sees the need for unstructured play both indoors, and especially outdoors in today’s kids. She spent much of her childhood outdoors “making mud pies and building forts.” She became a volunteer at our local zoo as a teenager and then was hired as a zookeeper while in college. It was at that time she met her husband, and he introduced her to outdoor recreation, which they still do together with their two boys. They fish, hunt, canoe, kayak, etc. She said she remembers taking their oldest fishing when he was only 10 days old. “The outdoors is just part of our everyday lives. We fish and hunt for enjoyment but also to provide a healthy food option for my family.”
While I’m sure she enjoys most aspects of her chosen career, Misty says her favorite part is seeing a child discover their passion. As Director, she doesn’t get to work with the children that come through their doors like she used to. However, she does get to give her staff tools and knowledge to pass along to kids. “I love to watch them get excited over the new knowledge and ways in which they might present it in the classroom. Being able to see that moment in which they see success in a child’s eye.” Misty also loves being able to see kids grow and flourish over the course of many years as they join the different programs that Wonders of Wildlife offers for kids. Programs like WOLF. The Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility (WOLF) School is a comprehensive outdoor learning school operated in partnership with the Springfield Public School System, Wonders of Wildlife and Bass Pro Shops. For fifth grade students specifically, the school (located at John A. and Genny Morris Conservation Center) provides state-of-the-art facilities to further their learning with technology and an outdoor learning lab. Students spend a significant amount of time in nature, learning through hands on exploration.
Other programs include a teen volunteer program called TNT, which I actually had a hand in launching many years ago. Teens are trained to work with education animals, teaching visitors about them and allowing visitors an up-close encounter with wildlife. Wonders of Wildlife offers homeschool-specific programs as well. “We offer monthly homeschool programs for children 2 years old through high school. Through in-depth, hands on learning, Wonders of Wildlife Homeschool Programs are designed to inspire students of all ages to take an active role in the conservation of our planet’s natural resources. We promise to provide students a fun and safe learning environment to further their knowledge in the areas of biology, chemistry, earth science, engineering, fishing, hunting, survival & more.” WOW also offers “homeschool days” where homeschooling families can bring their children to Wonders of Wildlife at the educational rate. If you live in the area and want to join in on the fun, you can register for programs here.
I’m blessed to have worked with Misty, and I hope my kids get to learn from her and her staff as we visit Wonders of Wildlife and attend their awesome programs. We may be a small town in the eyes of much of the world, but I love the connection to nature that our community works to provide for our citizens. Resources are plentiful around here. From parks to nature centers to WOW, one doesn’t have to go far to be immersed in the wonder of nature.