The Nature Connection

Outdoor Programming Takes Off

By Stacy St. Clair


ature programming long has been dismissed as a passive pursuit, an activity for blue-haired ladies who liked to identify wildflowers or armchair entomologists with creepy, crawly bug collections.

But recreation managers still clinging to that old-school belief could soon find themselves on the endangered species list. Today's nature programs draw diverse crowds, teach ecosystem-saving lessons and serve as a valuable partner in the fight against childhood obesity. In an environmentally conscious world that aims to grow greener each day, communities must include such programs in order to both meet their patrons' needs and societal obligations.

No Older Adult Left Inside

In order to bolster nature programming, managers first must drop any previously held notions about who participates in such activities. Today's participants are limited only to the organizer's imagination. The Nebraska 4-H, for example, traditionally has dedicated itself to young people interested in the agrarian pursuits. But in 1991, it expanded its programming to include seniors, a group that will desire more and more recreational services as the baby boomers reach retirement age.

Camp YEPIE (Youthful Energetic People Interested in Everything) was a three-day senior citizens resident camp held at the 4-H camp facility near Halsey, Neb. Under the initiative, interested seniors from both rural and urban communities could register for the early autumn camp in the Nebraska National Forest.

A scenic combination of the Sandhills and the world's largest hand-planted forest, the camp is both an educational and an enchanting getaway. Just as their school-age counterparts did during the summer, the senior campers could spend their days hiking, canoeing and kayaking in a gorgeous natural setting.

The innovative program was the product of a brainstorming meeting at an annual retreat for senior center managers in West Central Nebraska. As the managers gathered at the 4-H camp for the conference, they realized their patrons—many of whom grew up in 4-H Clubs—would relish a return to such a nostalgic setting.

"It's not just something kids enjoy," said Connie Cox, director of the Nebraska State 4-H camp.

Flexibility was a key factor in developing the three-day program, organizers said. The outing basically included all the same activities as the children's camps, but the overall pace was slowed. Campers were encouraged to relax and be easygoing. Campers also were urged to participate in activities, but they were not held to a rigid schedule. Those who were not interested in planned activities, for example, sometimes hunted instead.

In addition to the traditional 4-H nature activities, the itinerary included two programs designed to enhance the camp experience for senior citizens. The first was an information session on health-care issues of relevance to older Nebraskans. This lecture was presented by the West Central Area Agency on Aging, which co-sponsored the camps. The topics were always uplifting, so as to help boost the campers' feelings of self-sufficiency and well-being.

In keeping with the carefree, back-to-nature atmosphere, the staff called the senior campers "kids" and old-fashioned pranks were common. Campers from various communities wore matching sweatshirts, which built camaraderie and stoked rivalries among the groups. The entire experience sparked a sense of nostalgia among the seniors, prompting them to share their own memories of camp shenanigans and special moments. At the program's end, individual campers were given awards that served as reminders of events that occurred during camp and of newly forged friendships.

The camping program—which initially was slated to be held every three years—has not been held in several years, but organizers said they would consider reviving it.

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."

Nature Programming Matters

In tough economic times, it can be difficult to convince bean counters to try new programs. And unfortunately for nature programs, they often fall victim to budget cuts because there simply isn't enough awareness about their value to the community or their mass appeal. Here are some critical reasons why nature programs play an important role in any community:

  • Stimulate all aspects and stages of child development.
  • Offer multi-sensory experiences.
  • Stimulate informal play, experiential learning and natural learning cycles.
  • Stimulate imagination and creativity in a special, boundless way.
  • Integrate children by age, ability, ethnic background.
  • Help children feel good about themselves. Enhance self-esteem.
  • Offer children a feeling of "intense peace."
  • Center children in the environment where they live.
  • Help children understand realities of natural systems.
  • Demonstrate the principle of cycles and processes.
  • Teach that nature is regenerative.
  • Support interdisciplinary, environmental education curricula.
  • Provide flexible and forgiving settings.
  • Aesthetically appealing to all people.

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."

The program has had such an immediate impact on South Dakota families that U.S. Surgeon General Steven Galson recognized the agency for its active role in promoting healthy lifestyles and combating childhood obesity. In South Dakota, 32.9 percent of students are overweight or at risk for becoming overweight, according to the state's latest school height weight survey.

Nationwide, 9 million youths—or 15 percent of the nation's children and adolescents—are considered obese. That figured has tripled since 1980, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's office. Obesity has contributed to an increase of asthma and Type 2 diabetes among children. It also increases the likelihood that those overweight children will develop heart disease, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer as adults.

In presenting the award, the surgeon general promoted the state park system and its nature programming as a natural opportunity for physical activity. Children who are out looking at birds, digging for night crawlers or hiking along trails are children who are not sitting in front of the television, drinking sugary sodas and watching mind-numbing shows.

The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks has set its sights higher than just children.

The agency wants to get adults involved in nature, too. Officials have launched a "Becoming an Outdoorswoman" program—otherwise known as BOW—which teaches outdoor skills usually associated with hunting and fishing, but that are useful for many outdoor pursuits.

Each year, more than 100 participants gather at a state park for a weekend workshop on outdoor pursuits. Would-be sportswomen have four of 30 class options, with topics ranging from hunting, canoeing and fishing to geology, bird watching and orienteering.

Instructors strive to make the sessions as hands-on and user-friendly as possible to eliminate any anxiety female participants might have about enjoying traditionally male pastimes. Organizers know all too well that there are few women role models in natural pursuits and they want to make the experience as comfortable as possible.

The program has become so popular, the state agency began offering classes on "Becoming an Outdoors Family." Like the original workshop, the multi-generational seminars offer families an opportunity to learn about the outdoor world and how to enjoy it—together.

"It teaches them skills they can still use in life," Miller said. "It's the future of recreation."

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