Feature Article - September 2011
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Going Off Trail

New Paths in Programming to Connect Children With Nature

By Kelli Anderson

Taking Nature to Children

But for those children whose parents may not be as inclined to take them to the nature center, Five Rivers has developed a means to take nature to them. Five Rivers has created a variety of nature kits, portable containers to be used at school that are filled with tactile treasures like pelts, animal scat, microscopes, fossils and other items to entice children's natural curiosity and love of all things out-of-the-ordinary.

Teachers, trained to use the kit tools, are given materials sometimes worth as much as $1,000 (thanks to grant funding), and get their students out into the field, developing experiments, and testing questions that originate from the students' own areas of curiosity. Teachers love them because they meet new teacher standards, children love them because they engage all the senses, including their sense of fun, and the nature center loves them because nature is being made available to those children who might not experience it any other way.

Happy Campers

Dodge Nature Center in St. Paul, Minn., certainly credits much of its success with what it has done over the years to reach out to students and to its invaluable partnerships with local school districts, providing naturalists to lead educational activities in small groups and tying their hands-on programs with school standards and curriculum.

But the center also recognizes the benefits children experience from more imaginative fun in their camp programs. The center's most popular camps include That's Disgusting (getting down and dirty, hiking through wetland areas and shallow ponds), Camp Dodge Warts (a Harry Potter themed camp that uses an introduction to magic as its gateway to nature), or camps that focus on campfire cooking and farming. Most recently, the center has added a camp for children on the autistic spectrum that in one year's time has doubled its participation.

These specialty camps also reflect the growing interest and need for children to experience and learn what families once took for granted. "We started with arts and expanded to nature and specialty camps like horseback riding, golf, fishing and a few athletic camps," said Lisa Wolff, superintendent of the recreation division of the city of Burlington, N.C. "We have had it on our radar for a long time that these would be of interest and proof is in the pudding. Attendance is maxed out."

Ideas for specialty camps often come from having a finger on the pulse of the community as well as keeping an eye on what is working elsewhere. Camps on orienteering, for example, have become extremely popular with today's technology-savvy generation that is eager to use GPS devices as part of their tool kit. Similarly, camps and programs that use GPS devices to geocache, (the modern equivalent of a scavenger hunt), capitalize on children's love of all-things-electronic.

"We're constantly looking for new concepts for exciting programs," Wolff admitted about their own idea-generating process. "But number one, what we're doing is looking at the community to know what would spark their interest. We try to look at the whole picture and not just say that we're going to throw out a camp about birds."

Those at Dodge Nature Center agree, adding that a key ingredient to programming success lies in hiring staff who are essentially creative and who really understand children's ideas and are adept at making those ideas come to life.