Text and photos by Eric Weyer
Nature is a never-ending source of wonder, offering an abundance of intricate details, some so tiny they can barely be seen with the naked eye. That makes “loupes” (or hand lenses) one of the most important tools in any naturalist’s arsenal.
During a recent training exercise for ARMN volunteers learning to teach young people about nature, I also saw what a powerful tool a loupe can be in a child’s hand.
A loupe is essentially a super magnifying glass that allows users to see small details up close and personal. Before I became a member of the Arlington Regional Master Naturalists in 2021, I didn’t know what a loupe was.
My first use of loupes was practical. As a volunteer stream monitor for Arlington County, I used them to identify the macroinvertebrates that live in our streams. Telling the difference between broad-winged and narrow-winged damselfly larvae is tricky without magnification.
However, it wasn’t until early April, during a training with Bobbi Farley and Serenella Linares, that I truly learned what a world of wonder loupes can open.
The goal was to teach volunteers with an ARMN after-school program called “Nature Core Outdoors” some tips and tricks for interpreting nature to children. Nature Core is a partnership between ARMN and the Arlington Housing Corporation (AHC Inc.) that aims to introduce elementary-age residents in AHC’s after-school program to nature. The program is led by Alison Sheahan and Romana Campos, and includes volunteers from ARMN and other local nature groups including Virginia’s Extension Master Gardeners and Tree Stewards of Arlington and Alexandria.
Volunteers commit to teaching six weekly one-hour after-school sessions, with the goal of sparking joy and wonder in the children for the nature living in their own backyard.
Bobbi, a naturalist at Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington, kicked off the session by describing an insect lesson she teaches to kids. She stopped throughout to explain techniques she uses to keep the children’s attention, such as call-and-response shouts or claps. She showed how to engage children with different learning styles by varying her questioning techniques—asking for a shout or a raised hand or directing a question to a specific person. And she shared some silly, interesting facts. (I believe poop came up at least once.)
Serenella, a Park Naturalist at Mt. Rainier Nature Center in Maryland, then took us outside for another example lesson. She gave us a set of loupes and told us we had five minutes to find something interesting to discuss with the group.
Being an enterprising fellow, I took out my phone and snapped a few pictures of a beetle crawling on an American Hornbeam (Carpinus carolinia) leaf. Others wandered around the area outside the nature center, looking at flowers, leaves, even the lichens growing on a branch by the trail.
After five minutes were up, I was the first to show my photo to the group. Everybody oohed and ahhed when they noticed the little bits of pollen stuck to the beetle’s elytra (forewings) and legs, an example of pollination up close! We shared a few other findings, then reluctantly returned our loupes to Serenella and headed back inside, where she used this experience to teach us some more child-focused interpretation and group management techniques.
I was inspired by Serenella’s lesson. If this activity evoked such joy in us adults, I could only imagine the wonder it would create with our group of around 20 eager-to-learn 8-to-10-year-olds at the Woodbury Park Apartments in Arlington.
In our first lesson with them, we had spent a long time looking at seeds with only our eyes. I knew how amazing those seeds would look under 30x magnification!
At the next class, I showed up with 32 loupes I had purchased online. From the moment I told the students, “You can look through these at small things like the seeds we observed last week,” they started running off in search of cool things to look at. They were so entranced that I, along with the other Woodbury Park volunteers Barbara Raizen, Eileen Miller, and Liz Macklin, decided to forget about our planned lesson and join them.
We spent about 15 minutes marveling at how different all the little things we see in everyday life look when blown up. The first thing we studied was a dandelion, noticing how its deep yellow bracts looked like those on other flowers nearby. Then we looked at some leaf galls. We decided that the teardrop-shaped green and purple galls were “nature’s Hershey Kisses.” The others we couldn’t quite agree on names for—alien spaceships and Alice in Wonderland were the top votes.
Later we gave up our loupes for our final event, a bird scavenger hunt. Liz highlighted some common birds in the area and we split into small groups to start our search, stopping every fifteen seconds or so to observe something new. Whether a bird or a bug, it was always a perfect thing to look at with our loupes. We even found a skull that we were able to identify as a rabbit’s skull.
At the end of the lesson, we could see the excitement in the children’s faces as they talked about everything they had discovered. Seeing their enthusiasm made us all feel like we had accomplished something meaningful, thanks to fabulous leaders and teachers—and a few dozen loupes.