Valley Vignette: Naturalist Jon Beam inspires kids, families to get outdoors


Holding a mounted great horned owl, PPL senior naturalist Jon Beam asks a group of eager Montoursville first-graders how an owl can see so well at night.

“Because they have flashlights in their eyes,” a young boy in the front row blurts out. The room erupts in laughter as Beam continues the lesson in stride.

“It is about making a connection and bringing the outdoors alive,” the 22-year veteran at the PPL Montour Preserve near Washingtonville said later. “We are facing a new phenomenon some call Nature Deficit Disorder. Less and less kids are spending time outside during their early development years and it is taking an effect.”

According to Beam, more and more research illustrates the importance of outdoor play.

“Kids need time to play and explore outdoors without boundaries. It helps them develop a better sense of self and the world around them,” Beam said. “Video games, television, computers and the internet can really take time away from good unstructured time exploring outdoors. Some research has started showing a connec¬tion between lack of outdoor play and bigger behavioral problems later in life.”


Outdoor beginnings

Beam admitted that he was introduced early to the power of outdoor play.

“I grew up in the south-central mountains of Pennsylvania with nature all around. I’d be out catch¬ing frogs and snakes and tracking various mammals,” he said. “As I got older, I ranged out farther and far¬ther, and as long as I had my chores done and was home for supper I was good to go. If I wasn’t home in time for supper, mom was ready to kill me.”

Beam’s passion for the outdoors and nature was stoked further by a high school biology teacher he really enjoyed, and soon he was attending Shippensburg University and taking every biology-based class available.

“I felt a calling to work with wildlife — now I get to work with wild kids,” Beam joked.

After a year of in-school teaching left him discouraged due to dealing with day-to-day discipline problems, Beam got involved with the National Park Service and has been a naturalist ever since.

Captivating an audience

First-graders chuckle as Beam prepares them to listen to the call of a barred owl.

“It’s like the great-horned owl, but with a southern accent,” he says. “Who cooks for you — who cooks for you-all?”

They giggle again as Beam triggers the small owl call in his hand and the sound he just shared matches the phrase very closely.

“Making that connection with your kid and getting them excited about the outdoors doesn’t have to be hard for parents,” Beam said after the class walked out. “It’s all about making the time and experiencing the outdoors together. We are fortunate enough to live in a rural area where most people have backyards or live in towns with nice parks or other greenways. The best thing about the opportuni¬ties around here is that most of them are free.”

Even if you are not a nature buff, you can still get your children inspired about outdoor exploration.

“It’s OK to admit you don’t know what something is,” Beam said. “Spending time together looking up what made a certain animal track or identifying a bird can be just as much fun as being outdoors in the first place. Make it a game — a mystery.”

Cashing in on local youth-related outdoors programming is another way to help spark young minds.

“We have free programs here (at Montour Preserve) for all ages and interests, and there are a lot of programs offered by other groups, too,” Beam said. “Even if you don’t want to get involved in a group program, we have trails here where things are marked and families can learn on the go.”

Looking ahead

With more than two decades at the Montour Preserve under his belt, Beam admits it will soon be time to pass the mantle to other educators.“With retirement in sight, I really hope to see the programs here continue to flourish and help inspire people of all ages. It is so rewarding to see school groups come here and for the kids to get involved in the hands-on learning process,” he said. “As more teachers retire, some of the new ones are re¬luctant to get their students involved in outdoors learning — but others are em¬bracing it with open arms. If I can help reach teachers to make a difference with their students, then that makes all the difference.”

For more about the PPL Montour Preserve, contact Beam at (570) 437-3131 or visit

 at (570) 437-3131 or visit­serves/montour.

~ by zaktansky on July 10, 2013.

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