LARGO — Lachlan MacLaren led his buddies, single file, out the back door of the George McGough Nature Center.
He kept the line tight as they made their way past J.R., the great horned owl, and down the wooden ramp.
It wasn't until the first bend in the trail that the line loosened up.
Actually, it disappeared altogether.
"Look!'' the 4-year-old yelled. "A bee!''
Three kids dashed closer to the bush to get a look at the buzzing insect.
Barbara Stalbird, director of the center, moved in front of the children, keeping them a safe distance from the bee.
"It's busy helping with pollinating the flowers, remember?'' she asked the group.
This month, Stalbird reopened the Junior Explorers Program, a 10-month preschool program that began at McGough Nature Center last year.
Enrollment in the part-time program is down because the Largo City Commission has been discussing the possible closure of the Nature Center. But now that it appears the Nature Center will be staying open, Stalbird is eager to see more children enroll.
Mayor Pat Gerard and others have made it clear they want to avoid closing the center. "My intent in this budget process is to keep the Nature Center open," Gerard said last month at a budget meeting. "Just to go on the record with that."
That couldn't have been better news for Stalbird, who considers the Great Outdoors her classroom.
In her school, running is allowed and playing with sticks is encouraged.
On Monday, the class, made up of three boys and one girl, hopped, skipped and galloped through the woods as they hunted for the perfect stick for a fishing pole craft. They gazed at dragonflies fluttering between the trees. They searched a web wrapped around a stocky cabbage palm for a spider. They made a balancing beam out of a fallen pine tree in a clearing.
Stalbird's students wander with a purpose. "The preschool program goes hand in hand with the Last Child in the Woods idea by Richard Louv,'' said Stalbird, who has a bachelor's degree in environmental studies and a graduate certificate in environmental management and policy from the University of South Florida.
"Of course, we cover the very important ABCs and 123s, but the book speaks strongly about how the child who lacks experience in nature at a young age, between 3 and 5, often become disconnected in their school-age years,'' she said.
Stalbird said she recognized the disconnect firsthand in a few of the summer campers during Naturemania, McGough Nature Center's summer camp for ages 6-11 which had more than 350 participants.
"During the summer camp, I was able to see it easily," she said. "Some of the kids who were not exposed to nature earlier seemed almost bored out on the trails.''
That's not the case with Kalin Gilbert. Even though the humidity is thick and sticky and the temperature is above 90 degrees, the 3-year-old is eager for the chance to get outside.
"I don't mind sweating,'' Kalin said. "I like to see the bugs and the birds and the turtles.''
Stalbird advises all parents to always keep in mind the importance of exposing their children to nature.
"Parents' lives are busy, and sometimes they lose the inclination to just slow down and go outside with the kids," she said. "And once you're outside, let the kids have some space by themselves. They'll relax.
"A good example of the difference I see when kids get outdoors is with the kids I've seen diagnosed with autism or ADHD. These kids do their best outside. They're calmer.''
Stalbird, who also holds a child development associate and director credential through Pinellas Technical Education Center, recognizes the part-time preschool is not convenient for many working families.
"If we had enough demand, we'd try to offer a full-day program,'' she said. "But as of now, staff hours have been cut, and this is what we can do.''
For parent Stephanie MacLaren, whose son Lachlan has visited the Nature Center since he was a baby, the decision to enroll him in Junior Explorers was because of Stalbird's credentials.
"If we didn't enroll him here," MacLaren said, "there's a chance it would be middle school before he'd be exposed to this type of science with her background.''