After a bitter winter that came early and lingered, and a year and a half of pandemic lockdown complete with virtual schooling for most students, we are more than ready to get out of the house and have fun. The problems: the pandemic isn’t over, younger kids can’t get vaccinated yet and many venues that we’ve enjoyed for years have not fully opened. So what can we safely do to have fun with our kids and grandkids?
Grandma to the rescue!
My grandson called a few weeks ago to proudly recite the names of Oklahoma’s state symbols. Wow, that kid is smart! I knew a few of these but there are designated plants, animals, minerals and more that are Oklahoma’s official emblems.
A quick search of the Oklahoma Historical Society website confirmed my young scholar’s information. Being the sneaky teacher who believes everything is a learning opportunity, I thought we should go see, hear, touch, feel, smell and taste Oklahoma’s symbols. Depending upon the ages and interests of the children involved, you can focus on history, geography, science, art, music, food and more.
We gathered a good pair of binoculars, a notebook and pencil for my grandson to record his findings, plus a camera.
The great thing about this family adventure is that it can include everyone from toddlerhood to senior status. Many of these symbols are in our own neighborhoods, but all can be found on an easy day trip from Oklahoma City. Sites can be accessed free or at very low cost. Since most locations are outdoors, it’s safe to take the entire family to view these symbols. You can see many of our state symbols in a single day or plan to incorporate these ideas into your activities all year long. Either way, good fun and plenty of learning are guaranteed. This entire project took us almost six weeks to complete but we could have accomplished everything in a shorter time frame if the Oklahoma springtime weather hadn’t treated us with frequent rain, hailstorms, high winds and threats of snow!
Amazing Oklahoma animals
Our first foray into seeking out Oklahoma state symbols involved a trip to the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens. This visit gave us an easy glimpse at several state symbols.
Three bison, Oklahoma’s state animal, are in residence at the OKC Zoo. “Big, big kitty!” proclaimed my 2-year-old granddaughter. She wasn’t very scientific about the animals’ classification but she was right about their size. Note that they are not buffalo; those are native to Africa and Asia. The bison is North America’s largest and heaviest land animal. A walk through the Oklahoma Trails exhibit, an 8-acre naturalistic habitat that interprets the 11 different life zones of the state and features more than 100 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, provided plenty of information about bison and the state’s other symbolic animals.
Seeing the bison up close in the zoo was great but I wanted to give the kids a feeling of how these magnificent animals roamed the prairies. We took a trip to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge just outside of Lawton. It’s an easy hour’s drive down I-44. We grabbed delicious burgers and fixins in the town of Meers, just outside the Refuge, and enjoyed an al fresco meal inside the park before our visit to the Museum of the Great Plains, which has great exhibits detailing the history and ecology of the region.
Once in the Refuge, we spotted the bison herd from the road. They were sunning themselves on a hilltop about a quarter mile away. The binoculars helped us get a good look at the state’s most famous animal. Museum staff told us more than 650 bison comprise this herd, one of the largest in America. I explained to our grandkids that before European settlers came, more than 30 million bison roamed the North American Great Plains from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains and stretching from Texas into Canada. Bison provided food, clothing, footwear, shelter, tools, fire and more to the Indigenous people who lived on the plains.
A lot of other animals live in the Refuge as well. We drove to the top of Mount Scott, elevation 2,464 feet above sea level, and used our binoculars to see a herd of elk. Even from far away, these magnificent animals are an impressive sight.
The prairie dog village was an unexpected treat. The toddlers were entranced with these energetic critters. They squealed every time a prairie dog popped out of its hole. As we watched the sun set over the Wichita Mountains, red-tailed hawks, Oklahoma’s state raptor, soared on the updrafts of warm air from the prairie below. Were they hunting for a bedtime snack or just stretching their wings and enjoying their status as the state’s favorite avian predators?
Eating Oklahoma style
The following Sunday the family enjoyed part of the state’s official meal. We couldn’t fit it all into one sitting and our belts definitely would need loosening if we ate it all at once. We decided to have both an official Oklahoma brunch and plan an Oklahoma supper at a later date. Brunch consisted of biscuits and sausage gravy, strawberries, grits, eggs and chicken-fried steak.
The next weekend (it took us awhile to work off the brunch!) we enjoyed barbecue pork, corn, blackeye peas, fried okra, squash, cornbread and pecan pie. One thing you can say about Oklahomans – we know how to set a table.
Digging for rose rocks
Next, we went in search of rose rocks, the state’s official stone. The Noble area has the largest concentration of rose rocks but Lake Stanley Draper also has plenty and is closer. Rose rocks are found most easily near the water. We gathered garden hand tools and found a not-too-muddy area near the lake. The toddlers occupied themselves making mud pies while grandson and I dug into the sandy dirt. It only took a few minutes to find a handful of rose rocks. The biggest was about 3 inches across.
The main categories left on our Oklahoma state symbol list were plants. We visited the Will Rogers Arboretum near NW 36th Street and Portland Avenue in OKC and found Oklahoma roses galore in the rose garden. Redbud trees were winding down their blooming season; most had already leafed out, but we did see a few of their iconic pink, fuzzy flowers. Our preteen pointed out that these trees are abundant throughout the state and named places where he’s seen them.
It’s easy to find Oklahoma’s plant symbols in our own yards, neighborhood parks and roadsides. We spotted plenty of mistletoe, the state’s floral emblem, in a neighbor’s blackjack oak trees. Another neighbor had Indian Blanket flowers, the state’s wildflower, in her front yard. Autumn will find Oklahoma’s roadsides afire with these beautiful red and yellow blossoms. We talked about the name of the flowers, which prompted the grandson to Google traditional Oklahoma Indigenous blankets. Their bright colors and intricate designs rival the beauty of our state wildflower. It’s easy to see where the flowers got their name.
Our treasure hunt for Oklahoma’s iconic plants, animals, foods and rocks prompted lots of conversations and further research into the different habitats found in the state. Oklahoma is one of the most geographically diverse states in the nation. Our state has hardwood and conifer woodlands, prairies, mountains, hills, salt plains, sand dunes, swamps, rivers, lakes and a crosstimbers region where prairie meets the more forested eastern portion of the state. We discussed how plants fit into the ecology of the regions we visited and how plants and animals rely upon each other to survive.
We talked about how Oklahoma’s Indigenous people and early settlers relied upon the state’s rich and diverse animals and plants to survive and thrive.
Celebrating our adventures
We finished our state symbol quest with the family’s first barbecue of 2021. The state steak is the ribeye and the state veggie is watermelon. (Yes, it’s a fruit; and yes, the state legislature proclaimed it the state’s official vegetable). We decided to feature side dishes that reflect the diverse cultures found in our state. We ate elote (Mexican-style corn on the cob) as a nod to our Latinx neighbors; fry bread to honor Oklahoma’s Indigenous people; collard greens and sweet potato pie to connect with African American tradition; and Vietnamese spring rolls.
The music playlist for our final day of exploring Oklahoma’s symbols included the state’s signature waltz, Oklahoma Wind; our anthem, Rogers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!; the state folk song by Woodie Guthrie, Oklahoma Hills; and the state children’s song, Oklahoma, Our Native Land – catchy tunes, one and all.
The state’s official instruments are the fiddle and the drum, and the kids found both tom-tom and djembe drums and paraded around our house. (Note to self: next time we have a drum fest, pick a day when it’s not raining and the kids can go outside). Our attempts at square dancing, the state’s official dance, were comical but loads of fun. (Second note to self: toddlers are great at doing the do-si-do but they’ll wear you out if you’re not careful).
We showed the children videos of the Rosette Nebula, Oklahoma’s official astronomical object, and promised to take them to Tulsa to see the statue of The Driller, Oklahoma’s official state monument. They’re looking forward to a hunt for the collared lizard (the state reptile), bullfrogs (the state amphibian) and honey bees (the state insect) in their own yard and the neighborhood park, all easy to find during summer months.
The entire family enjoyed our month-long quest to see and experience Oklahoma’s symbols, and we learned a lot. Grandparents, parents and children alike marveled at the beauty and bounty of our home state. My grandson asked if we could explore Oklahoma’s diverse geographical regions in a future adventure. I can’t wait!
Camille Landry is a mother, grandmother, writer, political activist and the owner Nappy Roots Books, an independent African American bookstore, art gallery, gathering space and community center.