Building nature-based communities

How do individuals, organizations, and communities connect children, youth, and families with nature? These questions were at the heart of Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, which marshaled research and statistics to show that children are spending significantly less time in the outdoors than in previous generations, to their detriment and to society’s. Louv’s book inspired a movement, called “No Child Left Inside,” part of which was on display last month at a one-day conference in Northwood, N.H.

“Building Nature-based Communities” was the first conference put on by the New Hampshire Children in Nature Coalition. The coalition, formed in 2007 by a diverse group of professionals who shared an interest in connecting youth and nature, brought Richard Louv to New Hampshire as the keynote speaker at a statewide forum that year. The 2009 conference was developed for what Marilyn Wyzga, one of the organizers, called “grassroots” decision-makers; the 200 registered included AMC staff, parents, teachers, directors of recreation departments, wildlife biologists, and representatives from health organizations and nonprofits.

AMC member Nell Neal was drawn to the conference because of Louv. Neal teaches first-grade grade at the Moharimet School, a K-4 public school in Oyster River, in New Hampshire’s seacoast region. Two years ago, she and fellow first-grade teacher Becky Bradley participated in a PTO-sponsored discussion of Last Child in the Woods. Neal and Bradley noticed that although many of the parents in the discussion endorsed the book’s goals, they had trouble overcoming the fears, concerns, and circumstances that kept their children from spending time outside.

In the PTO discussion, the two teachers heard fears of “stranger danger,” concerns about diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes, and safety concerns about traffic. They knew that less than one in five children nationwide walks or bikes to school, and that an even smaller percentage do so at Moharimet because the school is located on a busy highway with narrow shoulders and minimal access from residential neighborhoods. They knew that many elements of modern family life erect additional barriers between their students and nature, including the ready availability of digital media, busy family schedules, and complex logistics that keep children in cars or inside, rather than outside.

Neal and Bradley had already been taking their students into woods bordering the school for playtime. After the PTO discussion, they saw an opportunity to expand their efforts. They dubbed the 30-minute playtime “free exploration” and scheduled it for Friday afternoons. They set simple safety rules:

* Always keep a teacher in view.
* Don’t pull up things that are growing.
* Don’t climb trees.
* Don’t lift anything above waist level.

But they allowed the children—encouraged them—to drag around branches that were as long as a first-grader and probably weighed about the same, too. They encouraged their students to build twig teepees and fairy houses, collect leaves and acorns, and simply to be outside. At the beginning of the school year, Neal and Bradley now send materials about the Friday outdoor activity to the children’s parents, and then update the parents in weekly newsletters. The “free exploration” and its associated parent education has continued into the current school year. The children quickly shed their timidity around the natural world, Neal says, and now “look forward to Friday afternoon all week.”

The teachers came to the conference looking for more safety information and curriculum ideas that would reinforce their students’ connection to nature. Throughout the day, breakout sessions and presentations addressed their questions as well as the larger issues behind the conference’s title. Other sessions explained how community groups can collaborate to create safe walking and bicycling routes to and from schools and other public destinations, how to create nature clubs and natural playgrounds, and how to create and use community assessments to build nature-based and child-friendly communities. (See below for more information.)

Nell Neal and Becky Bradley left the conference with a clearer sense of the obstacles that they and their students face—but also with a sense of hope that their first-graders will one day spend a lot more time outside than 30 minutes every Friday afternoon.

Learn more
At the “Building Nature-based Communities” conference, presenters and experts provided a number of resources for connecting and reconnecting kids and nature. For more information about the October 1 conference, visit the New Hampshire Children in Nature Coalition website, hosted by the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department.

AMC's education director Pam Hess gave presentations on "Staying Safe and Found" and "Hiking as a Family." Both presentations are available to individuals and groups. AMC has also recently released a fact sheet on the challenge of getting kids outdoors and AMC's commitment to finding solutions.

Conference keynote speakers Ashley and Chip Donahue described how they began the Kids in the Valley family nature club. Toolkits to create nature clubs for families are available from the Children & Nature Network.

Terry Johnson, director of HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living) New Hampshire, described how citizens and community organizations can assess neighborhoods and communities for livability and walkability. Other New Hampshire resources: New Hampshire Safe Routes to School Program and the Bike-Walk Alliance of New Hampshire.

Steve Glazer, creator of the award-winning, place-based education program Valley Quest, described the process of setting up natural and cultural history treasure hunts.

Additional information and research is available on childhood obesity and physical activity, Active Living Research, and the National Complete Streets Coalition.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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