It's a special preschool summer camp when kids are encouraged to pet a tarantula. But that's what little ones at the Ashland Family YMCA did on Wednesday during Bug Camp.

It's a special preschool summer camp when kids are encouraged to pet a tarantula. But that's what little ones at the Ashland Family YMCA did on Wednesday during Bug Camp.

Under the care of teacher Marti Carrington, 3- to 5-year-olds touched what felt like a soft pipe cleaner.

"The kids loved it," says Carrington, who has been teaching preschoolers for 30 years. "When choosing themes for summer camp, we want to explore what children are interested in. At this age, they are really focused on what they can see and touch in the natural world."

Turns out, kids interacting with crawling insects is not new to the YMCA and neither is getting a jumpstart on Oregon's science education standards for the new school year.

It's now a tradition for the YMCA staff to invite John Jackson, aka the Bug Man of Medford, to teach the preschool version of his popular science-based education programs.

In less than an hour, Jackson and his squiggly helpers show kids that cicadas, aphids and hoppers are bugs, but spiders, beetles and flies are not.

And that insects come in different sizes, shapes and colors.

"They especially like the big ones," says Jackson, a self-taught entomologist whose collection includes a 7-inch-long scorpion, foot-long centipede and a grasshopper the size of a plate.

What began as a hobby is now a full-time job. Jackson has hauled his portable fieldtrip of live creatures and preserved specimens to youth camps, schools, parks and recreation programs and other groups around Oregon.

Bill Whitlock of Talent, 70, is a volunteer "foster grandparent" at the YMCA and he has seen the Bug Man three times over four years. He says the girls seem just as excited as the boys. But not always.

Four-year-old Jimmy Stewart of Ashland giggled when he placed his finger on a stick bug that looked like a twig. "It tickles," he said.

Three-year-old Adeline Raymore of Ashland kept her distance from the pickle scorpion.

But on Friday, it was bee day, and Adeline stood in front of an easel and created a yellow-and-black blur. "Bumble bees pollinize flowers," she said.

When asked what "pollinize" means, she seemed to remember Jackson's talk about bees flying around and collecting pollen, which, he describes as the powder you get on your fingers when you touch a flower.

Adeline then defined "pollen" by brushing her fingers together before skipping off.

Other preschoolers painted bee-inspired yellow-and-black stripes on small paper plates and attached see-through tissue on each side that could flap up and down like wings.

Then they made a beehive out of bubble wrap and secured plastic bees to it.

"People have different styles of learning, and what works best is a combination of visual, auditory and tactile," says teacher Carrington. "For preschoolers, it's 'show me, tell me and let me do it.' "

Over the morning session, they gathered around as Carrington read aloud from "The Very Greedy Bee" book and they made up sing-songy sentences such as "A grasshopper is an insect; all insects have six legs."

Outside, they went on a bug hunt and played a version of Duck, Duck, Goose, only their game was Aphid, Aphid, Ladybug.

When it was time to wash their hands before lunch, they chose which sink they went to based on their arthropod preference. Aphids washed on the left while ladybugs used the sink on the right.

Carrington looked around at all the activity. "To hold their attention, we have to keep these kids busy all the time," she paused, then couldn't resist saying, "They're as busy as a bee."

Reach staff reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com