Feature Article - March 2009
Find a printable version here

The Nature Connection

Outdoor Programming Takes Off

By Stacy St. Clair


No Child Left Inside

In the meantime, 4-H officials are concentrating on designing programs that challenge and engage today's youth. At a time when the Internet and video games are their biggest competition for children's attention, Cox realizes she has an arduous task.

"We want to inspire kids to get out there and do it," Cox said. "There's more to (enjoying nature) than just digging in the dirt or kicking leaves around."

The camp offers traditional nature programming, such as sky gazing and bug collecting, but organizers make sure there's a modern twist. For example, there's a critter crawl, which teaches participants about various mammals. There's also a popular class in which kids are challenged to determine a tree's age by simply looking at it and making key observations.

Proving that 4-H isn't an antiquated pastime from days of yore, the group also offers "Amazing Race" and "Survivor" camps based on the popular reality TV shows. Racers follow clues that take them down trails and waterways in search of the finish line. Survivors, meanwhile, spend four days outdoors learning how to survive in the open and live off the land. At the conclusion of the four-day adventure, campers realize you can have fun without playing Guitar Hero or trolling Facebook.

"Nowadays kids are into PlayStations," Cox said. "Here kids learn about the earth, sky and trees. Sometimes it is better to go back to the beginning rather than to go to electronics."

While many nature programs enjoy ample participation during the summer months, lots struggle when classes are in session. Some try to offer adult classes during the weekdays, while others simply go down to skeletal staffs during the school year.

Several nature centers have found success tailoring their programs to accommodate school groups. They also have seen a strong response to camps held during Christmas and spring breaks, when children often fight doldrums and parents need daycare.

The Kane County Forest Preserve District in suburban Chicago has taken an innovative approach to programming with nature classes designed specifically for home-school children. The classes, which are held during the day, cost $8 per family and tackle various nature themes.

With 1.1 million home-schooled kids nationwide, the forward-thinking initiative taps into an underserved—but rapidly growing—segment of the population. The Kane County program's class size doubled after the first session in September, an increase credited to the district's creativity and the networking among home-school parents.

"We're excited to be to doing this," said Kane County Forest Preserve naturalist Jaclyn Olson, who started the program. "We're trying to reach every group and population of people."