Feature Article - March 2009
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The Nature Connection

Outdoor Programming Takes Off

By Stacy St. Clair

No One Left Inside

And that truly is the key to building a successful nature program. Managers can't rely upon the same groups to keep classes full and profitable. They must figure out creative ways to lure new groups and provide exciting services.

No agency has understood this challenge better than the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. The department, for example, launched a "Healthy Hunter" program, which aims to show hunters how good nutrition and physical activity can protect them from deadly predators like heart disease, diabetes and strokes.

The program features a six-week nutrition and physical activity pre-season plan to help hunters get in shape before they pick up their rifle or bow. The department promotes the initiative by holding marksmanship events at which hunters can get tested for body fat and blood pressure. The agency also has experts who provide nutritious game recipes and offer healthy tips for camping and cooking outdoors.

"We're always looking for new stuff to do," said Emilie Miller, program specialist with the South Dakota State Parks. "We want to give people a unique experience they can't get anywhere else."

Among the department's most innovative programs is its "No Child Left Inside" campaign, which urges kids—and their parents—to go outside and explore the natural world that surrounds them.

The initiative has outdoor activities for every season listed on a special Web site. In the winter, the department recommends marking animal tracks in the snow with food coloring or preserving a snowflake using a microscope slide and plastic spray. Once spring arrives, budding naturalists are encouraged to get 10 paint swatches from the hardware store and go find those exact colors in nature. Summertime finds kids gauging the temperature using the speed of a cricket's chirp. Leaf printing and star mapping are highlights of the fall.

"It's so important to get kids outside, in front of nature and away from the television," Miller said. "Our goal is to get kids and families outside in unstructured playtimes. It builds on creativity and deductive reasoning."

The program's ground-breaking feature, however, is its backpack loaner program. The packs—which are available for loan at the Pierre library—are filled with items that children can take out into nature, including birdseed, field guides, butterfly nets, magnifying glasses and other equipment for exploring.

The initiative also includes a small grant program, which received more than 60 applications in 2008. The state allotted $5,000 in grant money, giving groups between $500 and $1,000 apiece. The money helps fund, among other things, a nocturnal animals project, field trips aimed at teaching kids about insects and pocket guides for young anglers.

The most popular activity, however, is geocaching, the modern-day version of treasure hunting. Participants use GPS units and the Internet to find hidden treasure, or caches, that people have set up all over the world and later reveal their locations on the Internet. GPS users then use the coordinates to find the prizes.

When reaching their destination, the first thing people will find in the cache box is a logbook. The logbook will have information from the person who hid it and notes from people who have found it. Logbooks might also have information about nearby attractions, clues to other hidden caches and even jokes left by visitors.

The treasures are usually just small trinkets, but the hunt gives many families an invaluable way to spend a happy afternoon. The adventure costs them nothing, but encourages them to explore the outdoors and forces them to observe things in nature that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

"Studies show kids nowadays are less familiar with the outdoors," Miller said. "This is a great way to get them in front of nature. There's no commitment, it's free and casual, and families can pick what they like."