Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Go outside and Play!

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Go outside and Play!

Article excerpt

An innovative program gives kids the tools they need to connect with nature.

The rising giggles and animated chatter are clear signs that the kids are having a good time. Yet their attention never strays from the task of smearing sticks with peanut butter and adding birdseed sprinkles, a homemade treat for the birds during an outdoor adventure in Leesburg, Virginia.

Although the group of urban youngsters had certainly seen birds feeding before and know that animals are around their neighborhood, they don't have much experience with being outdoors to just hang out and explore nature - the downside of fast-paced, high-tech, city living. They aren't convinced that any birds will show up to feast on the feeders that hang from tree branches right outside their homes. But are they surprised when more and more fly in and begin to peck at the seeds.

That gets them thinking: What will happen if we smear peanut butter onto the tree itself? It doesn't take long to find out. Squirrels scamper in, eat up the unexpected meal, and introduce an element of wonder to the amazed children - another successful adventure for Wise Kids Outdoors.

A new program developed by the Säjai Foundation in Hamel, Minnesota, in partnership with the National Recreation and Park Association, Wise Kids Outdoors was designed to tackle two primary issues. One concern is inactivity in children, brought on by the record amounts of time they spend watching television and playing video games, which in turn contribute to an increase in the rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The other issue is nature-deficit disorder, a relatively recent term coined by author and Children & Nature Network chairman Richard Louv, that describes a condition where children are detached from the natural world and have diminished comprehension of its beauty and appeal.

Wise Kids Outdoors is an afterschool/summer recreation program that introduces children to the natural world. Through a series of 20 supervised outdoor adventures, they learn about animals, insects, plants, the weather, and the Earth itself. The program also connects nature to health so that kids learn the importance of a balanced life that includes being active outdoors and eating well. In 2009, its goal is to reach out to the more than five million children in after-school programs.

Each session is based on a LearnDo-Explore format. Outfitted with grasshopper-green backpacks and colorfully illustrated workbooks, children first learn about nature, environmental stewardship, and wellness concepts. Then they do activities related to those concepts. In the last phase, the program leads the children outdoors on 20 missions that let them actively explore nature and investigate the world around them.

In 2008, four park and recreation agencies in Kettering, Ohio; Leesburg, Virginia; Saint Paul, Minnesota; and San Francisco, California, participated in testing Wise Kids Outdoors.

"Long before the program was created, our recreation directors had seen evidence of nature deficit disorder when we took children into the outdoors," says Bob Bierscheid, former director of Saint Paul Parks & Recreation. "We took a group of kids on a week-long excursion to a regional park in Washington County, and it became apparent that- for many of these kids- it was the first time they had ever been in a natural environment. The leaders had to spend the first few days doing basic outdoors orientation: Here's what you do. Here's what you don't do. These kids were like fish out of water. In Saint Paul, we're blessed with natural areas throughout the city, including the Mississippi River and all the adjacent woods, wetlands, and nature preserves. …

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