Feature Article - September 2011
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Going Off Trail

New Paths in Programming to Connect Children With Nature

By Kelli Anderson

Nature Play and Preschools

Getting children connected to nature as young as possible, park districts and communities around the country are also seeing a proliferation in nature preschools and enjoying the revenue-generating benefits that go with it. As more and more parents are realizing the benefits of natural play and children's need to experience the outdoors, preschools that emphasize that experience are gaining in popularity.

And, it isn't just nature-based schools that are attracting the attention of parents' eager to teach their children about the literal birds and the bees. Play naturalists, too, have become a great way for park districts, like those being used in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., to lure families outdoors. Unlike a traditional naturalist whose role tends to be more didactic, play naturalists are those who see their role as similar to a lifeguard, facilitating and encouraging natural play, while also looking out for the safety of those in their care.

When the park district began to staff a different park per week with a play naturalist, the service became so popular with the community that parents now call ahead to find out where the play naturalist will be assigned next. "Is that a program?" Finch asked about this out-of-the-box approach. "Kind of. Nature is a program. There's a tendency to think that if we're going to take kids out in nature, we have to teach them. Nature will do the teaching if you let it; back off a little and let kids explore."

And the idea is catching on. Fifteen years ago, the idea of arming children with nets, shovels and magnifiers to wander, catch bugs, build forts in the woods and explore would have been considered radical. Today in the Twin Cities, parents pay good money for specialty camps to equip and encourage their children to do just that.


The good news is that for many following the lead of more nature-centered play and who are striving to balance structured time with play in the process, funding doesn't have to be a challenge. For starters, many play areas can be developed with little expense just by modifying or creatively altering what nature has already provided. In addition, with the federal and state governments offering grants (such as for programs that incorporate sustainability and green practices), the ability of nature preschools to generate lots of revenue, and an increasing number of parents willing to put their dollars where the outdoor fun is, funding the building of children's gardens, landscaping for exploration, creating school kits and training staff to facilitate natural play can be within reach for those who choose to pursue it.

"We wrote a solar grant for our children's house where we have large solar petals that generate light for the garden house and we put in a windmill for wind power to pump water into our play stream and have a gravity drip irrigation system for the children's garden," Yungers said about one funding source. "Sustainable and alternative energy is part of the interpretive story, getting families engaged with nature and also teaching about sustainability."