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'Mr. Rogers of Reptiles' takes Long Island students on virtual adventures 

Erik Callender, better known as "Erik the Reptile

Erik Callender, better known as "Erik the Reptile Guy," has launched a new hybrid magazine/virtual reality project called "Nature Now 360." Credit: Erik Callender

Erik Callender takes kids on a virtual reality romp through a field to a pond in Middle Island, searching for — and finding — a ribbiting bullfrog. "You feel like you’re in the swamp," Callender says.

The field trip begins in a new magazine Callender has put together called "Nature Now 360." Each issue, about the size of a Broadway play program, focuses on two reptiles, amphibians, or insects; the first issue, which came out in the fall, features bullfrogs and monarch butterflies. Along with text, photos and themed games, every issue includes 12 QR codes, each leading to a 3-dimensional, panoramic YouTube video featuring Callender, better known as "Erik the Reptile Guy," wearing his trademark safari hat and immersing kids in nature.

The magazine comes with easy-to-construct cardboard 3D, virtual reality goggles that have a spot to hold a smartphone so kids can easily watch the videos through the included lenses. By turning or lifting or lowering their heads, kids can look up, down and 360 degrees around as they walk with Callender and see what he is seeing. "I went everywhere from Fire Island to the Catskill Mountains to a nature preserve in Middle Island to get frog footage," Callender says.

LATEST PROJECT FOR ‘REPTILE GUY’

River Elementary School in Patchogue has ordered 260 magazines, enough for every one of their Kindergarten through fifth graders, says Tania Dalley, the principal. "I have worked with Erik the Reptile Guy for many years," she says. "He is absolutely incredible and highly engaging. He motivates the students to learn about animals in their habitats. When he contacted me and said he has this new project, I said, ‘Say no more. I’m on board.’"

Nature Now 360 is the latest project for Callender, 43, who grew up in Central Islip, lived on Long Island most of his adult life and recently moved to upstate Rosendale. He has brought his alligator, python, frogs and other animals to Long Island schools for years and starred in a 2017 TV documentary in which he Skypes from Madagascar with schoolchildren on Long Island, called "Doing the Reptile Rumba From the Rainforest of Ranomafana." In 2014, Callender brought Erik’s Reptile Edventures Discovery Center to the Long Island Game Farm Wildlife Park & Children’s Zoo in Manorville — with "Ed" standing for education.

GOAL: ‘TO REALLY CONNECT’

The next issue of Nature Now 360 is scheduled to come out March 21, and it will feature salamanders and wood frogs, which kids can see outdoors on Long Island in the spring; the May issue will feature lemur and chameleons from Madagascar, Callender says. He plans to offer four issues a year for now and is focused on marketing them to schools and to individual families in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut area. The goal is to get people to fall in love with nature, "to fall in love and really connect," Callender says.

Wade Becher, 4, of Oceanside, is "obsessed" with the magazine and virtual reality glasses, says his mother, Candice Becher, 40, a nurse from Oceanside. Callender did Wade’s birthday party in June, and the Bechers got the magazine from him when it came out. "Every night before bed we read it, we watch the video," Becher says.

The not-for-profit Community Learning Academy, which runs an after-school enrichment program for elementary school students in Central Islip, has ordered 30 magazines and will use them in a Zoom program with Callender beginning in February.

"Kids today love technology," says executive director Brandy Scott to explain why she is intrigued by the marriage of the printed magazine and the virtual reality portion. "Kids learn in different ways. Not everyone is pen-and-pencil. A video is a way to pull everything together. We’re looking forward to it."

MORE INFO One individual issue sells for $19.99 and includes the magazine, two posters, the cardboard 3D goggles and the videos. An annual subscription is $47.99 and includes the four issues with 48 videos, 8 posters and the goggles, as well as bonus videos that will be emailed in between issues, Callender says. Callender launched the magazine project with the help of a Kickstarter.com fundraising campaign. For more information or to order, visit Naturenow360.com.

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