Going Off Trail

New Paths in Programming to Connect Children With Nature

By Kelli Anderson

Five years ago, with the addition of new management at Tamarak Nature Center in Maplewood, Minn., programming for children and their families began to take the road less traveled. It began, in effect, to go off trail.

"When Marcie, our new acting outdoor education supervisor, came on board, she asked a question," said Jody Yungers, director of park services and recreation in Ramsey County, Minn. "If we really wanted our kids to connect with nature, why did we have signs posted that basically were saying don't touch, don't engage or really appreciate the outdoors? Marcie started the ball rolling and really worked with us to start the whole notion of asking the important question of how do we connect families with nature."

An answer followed shortly afterward. One afternoon, while observing the reluctance of young mothers with children to venture beyond the interior of the nature center, Oltman began to realize that the mothers' unfamiliarity and discomfort with the outdoors might be to blame. Her idea for a solution turned out to be wildly successful. It was also counterintuitive.

"We put up a simple split rail fence around a wooded island and put an inviting sign that invited them to play," Oltman said, describing the 1/3-acre space. "And it made all the difference. With the perception of safety and boundaries, parents felt that they could let go a little bit, and it became the beginning of what we now call our destination to discovery and nature play. We call it The Wild Place."

Perhaps wilder still, however, is the fact that Oltman and Yunger's greatest fear (that kids would trample the plants and destroy the area) was never realized. The destruction simply didn't happen. "They made it their own," Yungers said of the surprising result. "They made their own pathways and didn't destroy it. It was amazing. We just took a chance, and it stood up remarkably well."

Since these first adventurous steps into the unknown, not only has Oltman been recognized for best practices with the success of the Wild Places concept, the nature center has developed whole new goals and strategies as a result of what they are learning.

Helping mostly urban children with what they call "gateway experiences" to overcome fears of the imagined lions and tigers lurking in the woods has had to be part of the process by introducing nature through more manageable elements like a play stream in their children's garden that mimics natural water. Such gateway experiences are enabling children and their families to venture out with more confidence beyond the designated Wild Places into the 800-acre area beyond.

Switching from a traditional environmental interpretation model toward one that emphasizes helping people to discover the value of nature through art, play, exploration and inquiry, the nature center has developed goals and objectives that inform every program they create.

With best practices for programming to help foster children's connection to nature still in its formative stages, many park and recreation facilities, nature centers, preschools and communities are diverging from the traditional programming trails to forge their own paths in an effort to be more effective in what has become a topic of international concern. As a result, creative specialty camps are booming, programming that focuses on nature-based play is all the rage, and new partnerships abound helping to make these changes a reality.

Nature Deficit Disorder

Largely beginning with Richard Louv's clarion call about the harmful effects of children's increasing estrangement from nature in his book, Last Child in the Woods, the nation has since seen a proliferation of conferences on the topic, while many states have adopted initiatives like No Child Left Indoors and designers, consultants and think tanks like the Natural Learning Initiative out of the NC University College of Design, are in ever-increasing demand.

For those once skeptical of what Louv coined "nature deficit disorder," there is now an abundance of research, such as that conducted by Dr. Frances E. Ming Kuo of the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, demonstrating a link between less access to nature and greater ADHD symptoms, higher rates of clinical depression, stress, anxiety and other physiological problems. Conversely, those with greater access to their natural surroundings demonstrated better cognitive functions, more self-discipline and impulse control, and greater overall mental health.

Children, however, are not the only casualties in this crisis. With the children of today becoming the taxpayers of tomorrow, there is growing concern that conservation and environmental protection are in the crosshairs if the current situation does not change. Providing an emotional connection to nature seems to be offering a solution.

Authentic Experience

"Whatever we do, we always try to make sure children have an authentic nature experience to draw them in," said Lauren Stayer, education assistant with the Five Rivers MetroParks in Dayton, Ohio. "Children get out in a creek and catch a crawdad or catch a butterfly in a net and they see how cool that is. They walk away eager to come back. Authentic experiences are so key." According to Stayer, such experiences are greatly responsible for what has made their facility and its programs a household name and well supported by the taxpayers of their community.

And research certainly bears that fact out, with nature centers particularly appreciating the need to create an emotional bond as an underpinning to learning and support. "In the last 30 years, research keeps coming up with the result that the most common influence on lifelong conservation is frequent, non-structured play," said Ken Finch, president of Green Hearts Inc. a nonprofit conservation organization promoting bonds between children and nature, based in Omaha, Neb. Emphasizing that emotional connection is often a byproduct of unstructured play, Finch concluded, "If our children are losing that frequent play, the implications for long-term conservation are terrible."

With such rivals for attention as air-conditioning, the comforts of the couch and video technology enticing America's children to stay indoors (and the magnified fears of stranger danger and things that crawl or go "hoot" in the night), facilities like those at Five Rivers have had their work cut out for them.

Tike Hikes, however, is just one of the programs they have developed that is meeting with great success. Unlike the traditional programs (which they also offer) with indoor crafts, snack times and more structured play, Tike Hikes get the children and their parents out to experience nature and are not only more fun, but even more economical as well.

A Tike Hike craft, for example, might include planting a flower that requires fewer resources than the indoor programs and is more flexible when unregistered families drop in for an impromptu experience. "Parents love the program," Stayer said. "We have anywhere from 60 to 70 people at a time. We can reach more people and it doesn't cost anything because it's only paying for my time."

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.

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."

Play it Safe

Perhaps some of the biggest obstacles to this newer approach to children's programming and nature play are the concerns for children's safety, liability and damage to the environment. According to nature play advocates like Finch, many solutions to these concerns begin with a look at perspective, comparative risk and risk analysis.

"We often have conversations about the worry with catching fireflies and climbing trees," Finch said about a common concern. "When I ask if they have a driveway, a parking lot or buildings, I tell them 'You did way more damage with those things than a kid will ever do catching grasshoppers.' We put children in there to encourage them to take better care of the property—that's what it's about. It's a retooling of perspective to ponder what is harmful and what isn't."

Safety, too, is a commonly raised objection, especially on the issue of climbing trees. "A lot of it comes down to comparative risk and common sense," Finch responds. "When I met with Charlie Shoemaker, the director of Five Rivers, we talked about these perceived dangers and his answer floored me. 'No big deal; that's what we have insurance for'." When the first and second causes of children's death are drowning and car accidents, he further explained, it would be silly to expect parks to erect six-foot fences and turn roads that bring people to their doors into bike paths. From bee stings to grizzly bears, parks, he maintains, have risks. The trick is how to manage them.

Industry peers in Britain, it seems, have come up with a working solution. In a nationwide program to get kids out in nature called Play England, they perform a three-pronged safety analysis that, in the case of trees, for example, first identifies suitable trees for climbing; second, identifies potential hazards and lessens dangers (like removing neck traps and sharp points and adding mulch); and third, does a benefits analysis that explains the benefits like self-confidence, psychological gains and just falling in love with nature.

"Falling in love with nature, pairing it with the benefits, sends a great message to parents and community," Finch concluded. "The trends are going in the right direction."

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