Junior Explorers invited to get their badge at Wildcat Hills

GERING, Neb. — Children have long enjoyed exploring nature at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, whether by hiking the trails of the 1,000-plus-acre park or by viewing the interactive displays of its Nature Center. Now there is a new program to guide their exploration and make it official.

This month, on Free Park Entry and Fishing Day on May 19, the Nature Center will begin awarding badges and certificates to children who complete its new Junior Explorer program. The program will be available on an ongoing basis after that.

Amanda Filipi, the outdoor education specialist who is based at the Nature Center, worked with members of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission’s communications division to create, design and print a 16-page full-color book with activities for children ages 4 and up. In addition to traditional activities, such as a word search and maze, the program has activities that require children to find and study natural features, such as animal tracks and plants.

A Watchable Wildlife Grant, made possible by donations to the state’s Wildlife Conservation Fund, funded the project.

“Here at the Wildcat Hills we’re always looking for ways to help kids gain an appreciation for nature and the region’s history,” she said. “We’re sure the kids will enjoy completing the activities and getting a little recognition for it. We’re excited to get it started.”

Amanda Filipi, Commission outdoor education specialist, displays the new book and badge created for the Junior Explorer Program at the Wildcat Hills Nature Center. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

Filipi said the activities are intended to relate specifically to the Wildcat Hills, highlighting the region’s history, wildlife, paleontology, flora and geology. For instance, there is content devoted to topics such as bighorn sheep, the ancient fossils that have been unearthed nearby, the park’s Great Depression-era stone shelters and the rare-to-Nebraska mountain mahogany tree.

“And, we have a section on the bees. Here at the Wildcat Hills we always have to have something for the bees since we have an active bee hive at the building,” she said.

Filipi said this is the first Junior Explorer Program at a Game and Parks Commission attraction, but hopes to see it added to other parks in coming years.

The Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area is located in the rugged terrain 10 miles south of Gering along Nebraska Highway 71. The books are available at the Nature Center’s front desk.