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Feature Article - September 2011

Going Off Trail

New Paths in Programming to Connect Children With Nature

By Kelli Anderson


Five years ago, with the addition of new management at Tamarak Nature Center in Maplewood, Minn., programming for children and their families began to take the road less traveled. It began, in effect, to go off trail.

"When Marcie, our new acting outdoor education supervisor, came on board, she asked a question," said Jody Yungers, director of park services and recreation in Ramsey County, Minn. "If we really wanted our kids to connect with nature, why did we have signs posted that basically were saying don't touch, don't engage or really appreciate the outdoors? Marcie started the ball rolling and really worked with us to start the whole notion of asking the important question of how do we connect families with nature."

An answer followed shortly afterward. One afternoon, while observing the reluctance of young mothers with children to venture beyond the interior of the nature center, Oltman began to realize that the mothers' unfamiliarity and discomfort with the outdoors might be to blame. Her idea for a solution turned out to be wildly successful. It was also counterintuitive.

"We put up a simple split rail fence around a wooded island and put an inviting sign that invited them to play," Oltman said, describing the 1/3-acre space. "And it made all the difference. With the perception of safety and boundaries, parents felt that they could let go a little bit, and it became the beginning of what we now call our destination to discovery and nature play. We call it The Wild Place."

Perhaps wilder still, however, is the fact that Oltman and Yunger's greatest fear (that kids would trample the plants and destroy the area) was never realized. The destruction simply didn't happen. "They made it their own," Yungers said of the surprising result. "They made their own pathways and didn't destroy it. It was amazing. We just took a chance, and it stood up remarkably well."

Since these first adventurous steps into the unknown, not only has Oltman been recognized for best practices with the success of the Wild Places concept, the nature center has developed whole new goals and strategies as a result of what they are learning.

Helping mostly urban children with what they call "gateway experiences" to overcome fears of the imagined lions and tigers lurking in the woods has had to be part of the process by introducing nature through more manageable elements like a play stream in their children's garden that mimics natural water. Such gateway experiences are enabling children and their families to venture out with more confidence beyond the designated Wild Places into the 800-acre area beyond.

Switching from a traditional environmental interpretation model toward one that emphasizes helping people to discover the value of nature through art, play, exploration and inquiry, the nature center has developed goals and objectives that inform every program they create.

With best practices for programming to help foster children's connection to nature still in its formative stages, many park and recreation facilities, nature centers, preschools and communities are diverging from the traditional programming trails to forge their own paths in an effort to be more effective in what has become a topic of international concern. As a result, creative specialty camps are booming, programming that focuses on nature-based play is all the rage, and new partnerships abound helping to make these changes a reality.