Coming Full Circle

By: Sonya Carrizales

Today I want to write about a woman named Mildred Ericson and her mission to create interpretive programming for children, which has left a lasting impact in Yellowstone National Park. Mildred Ericson broke the decade-long trend of women naturalists being excluded from National Park Service jobs in Yellowstone when she was hired as a ranger naturalist in 1946. Given the political climate around women being hired in the National Park Service at the time, Ericson had to prove why she deserved an official ranger naturalist role. I believe she did just that by creating the Junior Explorers Nature Program. 

Photo of the “Junior Explorers” Nature Program cohort with leader Midlred Ericson in 1947. Photo Courtesy of National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, Rare Book Collection.

During her second season as a ranger naturalist, Mildred Ericson established the Junior Explorers Nature Program in 1947 as Yellowstone’s first junior ranger program. The Junior Explorers Nature Program invited children ages six to fourteen to attend programs on weekdays from 2:00 to 4:30 pm in Mammoth Hot Springs. Some of the official activities of the Junior Explorers Nature Program included: 

  1. Hikes to Clematis Gulch, Hot Spring Terrace, and Beaver Dams explore different ecosystems in Yellowstone. 
  2. Crafting “plasters of Paris tracks of animal footprints”, “Spatter prints of leaves”, or “Crayon prints”.
  3. Nature games where children tried to name at least one animal, plant, or geothermal feature in Yellowstone starting with every letter of the alphabet.
  4. Miscellaneous activities such as, drawing maps of the area, “write-up observations”, and treasure hunts led by different campers each week. 

Photo of a page from Mildred Ericson’s field notes capturing the day-to-day events and activities of the Junior Explorers Nature Program. One notable feature of Ericson’s entries are the signatures she would keep from each camper who participated in programming that day. Courtesy of National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, Rare Book Collection.

According to a report about the Junior Explorers Nature Program written by Ericson herself, the purpose of the program was to give children the opportunity to study nature and appreciate the natural resources Yellowstone has to offer. Despite only receiving publicity through the postcards Ericson wrote to local families or posters Ericson pinned around Mammoth Hot Springs herself, the Junior Explorer Nature Program had a total of 246 children participate in programming over the summer of 1947. Participants were both Mammoth employee children and visitors’ children from all over the United States and Canada. The positive comments from visiting children’s parents and local parents alike indicate the massive success the Junior Explorers program achieved by the end of the 1947 season. 

It is unclear whether Mildred Ericson continued leading the Junior Explorers Nature Program over the next three consecutive seasons she worked in the park, but her vision for educational programming catered to Mammoth community children is still recognized today through the work of the Little People’s Learning Center. According to their website, “​Little People’s Learning Center (LPLC), a non-profit early learning center providing educational experiences to children ages 6 weeks – 10 years in the Yellowstone National Park community of Mammoth, is dedicated to cultivating a life-long love of learning in each one of our students.” The Little People’s Learning Center bolsters their mission by focusing their curriculum around four main principles: Education of the Whole Child, Place-Based Education, Emergent Learning, and Project-Based Learning. Last Tuesday, I got the incredible opportunity to volunteer with the Park Ranger Classroom at the Little People’s Learning Center. I wanted to teach the children about Mildred Ericson and other influential women in Yellowstone’s history, so I practiced a few songs from a songbook compiled by Beulah Brown and planned out an activity from Ericson’s Junior Explorers program I could replicate.

Photo of my field notes captured in the same way Ericson wrote her field notes. Included are signatures from some children who were at the Little People Learning Center when I volunteered.

For anyone who has read my previous blog posts, the name Beulah Brown may sound familiar since I briefly mentioned her in my blog post “Finding My Footing”. A woman of many talents, Beulah Brown compiled and published a songbook titled, “Songs of the Yellowstone Park Camps” in 1925 while working as a manager at Mammoth Camp. Dating back to 1922 when she directed the Program of Pageantry for Yellowstone National Park’s fiftieth anniversary, Brown became heavily involved in facilitating nighttime entertainment and campfire performances that defined Yellowstone Park Camps. In order to commemorate Brown’s contributions to Yellowstone’s history, I decided to select a handful of songs from Brown’s songbook and perform a few songs I practiced on the ukulele for the Park Ranger classroom. 

Photo of “Songs of the Yellowstone Park Camps”, a songbook compiled and published by Beulah Brown in 1925. Courtesy of National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park, Pamphlet/Vertical File Collection.

One of the songs I performed from the songbook is called, “A Gymnastic Relief” and it involves some dance moves the children were able to replicate by following the lead of their classroom teacher. While I had a nature game from Mildred Ericson’s field notes planned out, I decided to simply ask each camper about their favorite animal in Yellowstone National Park during snack time and let the children lead the way during playtime. Volunteering at the Little People’s Learning Center was a great change of pace from my typical research tasks, which are done quietly at the Heritage and Research Center or remotely from my house. Moreover, volunteering provided me a great opportunity for me to connect with the Mammoth community and teach today’s youth about the women like Beulah Brown and Mildred Ericson who contributed to Yellowstone’s legacy.

Photo of me volunteering at the Little People’s Learning Center in Mammoth.

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