Ava’s Special Shelled Friends: Motivating Children’s’ Learning

Coche No Ordinary Life, October 2015


Subtitle: Clever skills help motivate children to learn with glee

Summary: Ava and Sara learn to appreciate the ecosystem in their playtimes with our famous neighboring turtles        


                                                  You better watch out!
                                                   You could be next!
                                                  It could happen to you
                                                    When you least expect!
                                                   It could fly through the air,
                                                    or come in a hug!
                                                  You might just catch
                                                     the turtle bug!

                                                                        The Turtle Bug, a song by Karen Buckley, The Turtlesinger


Gracie and her boyfriends, Bart and Rocky, live with their human parents on the spectacular marshlands near The Wetlands Institute, a nationally renowned source for protection and study of the salt marshes in New Jersey. I share the privilege of living on the egret lined marshland,  where sunsets in fall punctuate the sky with raspberry and burnt sienna. Oh, to clarify, Gracie and her boyfriends are turtles. 

When granddaughter Ava was about 2 years old, to stimulate her interest in the remarkable life of the marshlands,  I took her to a turtle filled musical evening at Avalon Library, where The Turtlesinger and her husband, self-named “ The Turtletoter,” entranced a full house with songs, live turtle feeding, and games involving their turtles. Big black Bart, a substantial red-footed tortoise, and inquisitive Rocky, a diminutive box turtle, stole the show. The human Buckleys have combined their substantial talents to form a not for profit foundation educating the public about this 250-million-year-old species. Karen, recipient ofthe Alliance for New Jersey Environmental Education Outstanding Environmental Educator Award for Work with the Public at Large, writes and sings songs about the turtles while Charlie plays Daddy to the turtles he carries into the audience so the children can see, and even feed them. The turtle races that follow the concert are simply hilarious as kids and adults get swept into the drama centering around which turtle can land least slowly at an appointed location. Children and their adult care takers leave the concerts and demonstrations enamored with their new shelled friends, anxious to learn about them and see them again and again.

The wholesome good fun is also highly educational. Their website tells us that Turtlesinger, Inc. educates and entertains the public about turtles with live turtles and original songs, focusing on education, literacy and music/animal therapy. No one else in the world does what Turtlesinger does in utilizing the arts (music, theater, photography, video, and more) and live turtles. The Turtlesinger T.A.L.E.S. (Turtles Are Listening to Every Story) “Read and Feed” Reading Program promotes literacy, and  conducts music and turtle animal therapy for nursing homes, and challenged children and adults. Turtlesinger events raise awareness of earth’s most ancient living reptile, the turtle, and create an experience that leaves a lasting impression. When people meet the personable turtles, they gain a greater appreciation and awareness of wild turtles they encounter, learn how to safely deal with them, and learn how to help protect turtles’ many and varied habitats.

Impressed by the delight engendered for a very few very quiet turtles, I purchased Karen Buckley’s CD, filled with her catchy, self-composed odes to turtles.   We played them in the car on frequent trips around our beach community but, little did I suspect that 4, by age, Ava would become a vociferous member of the turtle fan club.  Ava’s brief exposure to the animals had been so effective that it had motivated long term learning. 

“Grammy, can we play the turtle songs?” Ava had memorized the lyrics about Gracie, Bart, Rocky and Spike by the time she was four. And so had I.  With a background in children’s’ learning I knew that enthusiasm motivated Ava’s learning, so, to enlarge her knowledge of our four footed neighbors, I asked the Buckleys if we might visit the turtles at their home down the street from our cottage. Since then, acclaimed educators and musicians, Karen and Charlie Buckley, have repeatedly invited us to visit the only award winning turtles I have ever met. Rocky and Bart have multiple awards, including the New Jersey Animal Hall of Fame.  

The motivational magic works wonders.  Late last August Ava said, “Grammy, can we visit Bart and Gracie?  Sara hardly knows them and I would love to see them. It has been a long time.  Now a sophisticated 9 year old with the supple movements of a gymnast, Ava has remained loyal to the egrets and the turtles she has loved and learned about ever since she can remember.  And so it was that Ava and Sara and I walked the Boulevard a short distance till we came to the sign of The Turtlesinger, waiting to greet us with a big smile and the turtles. We had brought blueberries and watermelon, turtle treats. Ava and Sara, 5, each took chopsticks and fed Bart, Gracie and Rocky their delicious treats. Happiness reigned supreme. 

The highlight of the memorable visit was the affection evident as the girls got close to Gracie and Bart’s shells and looked into their eyes of their quietly gentle friends.  It was obvious that they connected to the hearts beneath the shells and, from the trusting way the turtles returned our direct gaze, the interest clearly seemed mutual. Gracie and Bart and Rocky were engaging and open to attention.

Ava, Sara and I have become a small sample of many local turtle lovers.  Daily, motorists all over Seven Mile Island stop cars to save lives of diamondback terrapins, which are killed crossing the streets to lay eggs. Volunteers have even built a pipeline to prevent tiny turtles from reaching the dangerous road. The turtle fest, an extravaganza devoted to turtledom, is an integral part of the annual calendar.

We are the home of a rare and disappearing breed of turtle, the diamond back terrapin. Because terrapins have been slaughtered for food, had their homes destroyed, drowned in abandoned crab traps, and suffered death as they try to cross the road, the diamondback terrapin is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.  The Wetlands Institute established the Terrapin Conservation Project in 1989 and it has grown in to the Coastal Conservation Research Program (CCRP), where undergraduate interns work closely with research scientists at The Wetlands Institute. One project that has received praise is the Barrier fencing erected each spring to stop terrapins from crossing the road to lay eggs.  

We owe a vote of thanks to the high spirited brilliance and dedication with which reptilian educator Karen Buckley has understood how to motivate children to love and protect the fragile ecosystem in which many of us thrive each year. 

To consider: How might you enhance the learning of the children you know?  What do you want them to understand and appreciate? How can you help them become internally motivated to want to learn more? Will you be glad you did?

To explore:Spend some time getting to know the turtles and the skillful learning about ecosystems on The Turtlesinger, Inc. website:   www.Turtlesinger.org

Norris Clark