Under the cover of shade, 10-year-old Curtis Grady cast his line, baited with a bite of hot dog, into Darby Creek. He hoped to hook a catfish.
Curtis, of Southwest Philadelphia, was one of 12 children taking part Tuesday morning in Philly Nature Kids, an environmental education program at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, which straddles the Eastwick section of the city and Delaware County. The program is designed to get urban kids engaged with the outdoors.
"The kids can kind of get a sense of stewardship," said Brianna Patrick, the program's supervisor.
Nine of the 12 youngsters had never handled a fishing rod. Some found it fun; others seemed intimidated. But all tossed out line after line, arcing gracefully into the calm water or snagging in the trees.
The group is made up of science-minded pupils who just completed fourth grade at Penrose and Patterson Elementary Schools. Refuge staffers went into classrooms once a month over the last school year and hosted field trips to the refuge.
Curtis, a Penrose pupil, signed up for the three-day camp because "what we did inside the classroom, it was so fun," he said, "So I wanted to have more of that fun." He also liked learning about crayfish and the fact that they'll get testy and will scrap if you put two of them together.
His Penrose classmate Jayden Middlebrooks' favorite thing was learning the parts of the flowers, which he rattled off: the ovaries, the petals, "the colors that direct the pollinators where they need to go to get some pollen or nectar."
Knowledge retention is only one element of Philly Nature Kids' purpose. The program has been teaching about wildlife in the two elementary schools for three years.
"We decided we wanted to do intensive programming where we saw the kids over and over again so we could build that comfort level," said Kelly Kemmerle, an environmental education specialist with the refuge.
But this is the first year it wraps up with a three-day free camp for those aspiring biologists who want to learn more – and get dirty. They'll practice fishing, archery, and kayaking.
"So this is kind of their celebration camp," Patrick said.
The aim is "getting kids outside," said Tylar Greene, a spokeswoman for the refuge. "This is a way to give kids access to the outdoors that's local. So it's right in the community."
Vismita Holavanahalli, 10, a Penrose pupil, said she wanted to come to the camp because the program's leaders "teach really fun stuff about animals and different wildlife." She's not sure about the whole fishing thing yet. But if she wasn't with her friends testing the waters of Darby Creek, she said, she'd be indoors playing games or reading.
The coordinators stressed the importance of such a program being available to children who live in an urban area.
"Our main goal is for the kids to see this as part of their house, part of their community," Patrick said. "They don't all have backyards or, you know, flowers or trails or things like that anywhere near them. But this is a place where they can come and see everything, and kind of build a kinship with it and come back time after time."