Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
December 2007

Alaskan Kids in Nature

By Carmen Field
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Author Carmen Field and her family, with some prize Kenai Peninisula fungi.

Many Alaskans have a deep-rooted connection to the outdoors. If we were asked how that connection was created, most of us would reflect back to our childhoods. We fished, hunted, farmed, explored, and swam. Some of us may have been blessed with a special adult – teacher, relative, or neighbor – who nurtured an interest in the environment. Others of us may have simply been encouraged by parents to play outside. But regardless of how that bond with nature was forged, we’ve grown into adults who care about our natural resources.

Our children’s generation, as a whole, is not developing this same relationship with nature. To many first graders, a forest is a maze of obstacles that a computer character – via a joy stick – must navigate through to “win.” Likewise, the ocean is a flat-screen TV where SpongeBob SquarePants and his cohorts run around in hysteria. For a plethora of reasons – including liability issues, safety, over-full schedules (of both parents and kids), changing landscapes, and the draw of “cool” technologies – today’s kids are not spending much time outdoors.

In the words of author Richard Louv, today’s young people are suffering from “nature deficit disorder.” And with this affliction comes the loss of so many benefits from nature, among them opportunities to improve creativity, cognitive functioning, coordination, focus, and behavior; ward off childhood obesity; reduce some of the effects of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); and connect children to the natural world and its myriad relationships.

So what can be done to reverse, or at least slow, this process? Nationally, individuals and groups of people are mounting political and programmatical efforts to help get children outdoors. Programs like the National Park Service’s junior ranger programs, the National Forest Service’s More Kids in the Woods, Take a Child Outside Week (the last week of September), and REI’s Passport to Adventure have recently been created to engage youth in outdoor activities. Multi-organizational efforts such as the No Child Left Inside Coalition (which has supported the bipartisan 2007 No Child Left Inside legislation introduced in both the House and Senate with wide sponsorship), California’s proposed Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights, and the Children & Nature Network are all examples of progress made in the movement to reconnect young people with the outdoors.

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Eryn gets close to nature during the Exploring Our Estuary workshop.

In Alaska, a Kids in Nature program has been initiated within Fish and Game’s Sport Fish Division at the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (KBNERR). The first phase of this training program for parents of 2 to 8-year-olds took place in Homer in September, as part of the Reserve’s National Estuaries Day celebration. Twenty-one parents (joined by 28 of their kids), over the course of an hour, were introduced by KBNERR science educator Carmen Field to the wide array of safe and fun outdoor places and activities that families can enjoy together in the Kachemak Bay area.

During this Exploring Our Estuary with Kids workshop, a slide show described trails, beaches, parks, and little-known natural places where youngsters can experience free play. For Homer these included popular pathways like the Homer Spit, Beluga Slough, and Wynn Nature Center trails, and less-traveled routes such as Diamond Creek and Eveline State Recreation Area trails.

Field also gave an overview of activities promoting a connection with nature – fishing of all sorts, tree climbing, collecting insects with an umbrella, creating snow creatures, a variety of outdoor games, craft ideas, ant-sized nature walk (with toothpicks), tidepooling, beach tea parties (using found objects), frog hunting, butterfly observation and more. She outlined year-round activities like birdwatching, fishing, and fort-building and seasonal forays like berrypicking, gardening, and Easter egg hunts. Outdoor active sports, especially those touting exploratory aspects like cross-country skiing, running, puddle jumping, ice skating and snowshoeing, were also encouraged.

In addition to a list of ideas for equipment that would add to children’s outdoor experiences, KBNERR staff created a Kids in Nature Kit that was given free to the first 20 parents who signed up for the workshop. While anyone could attend the free presentation, it became obvious to the Reserve staff that the kit was going to be a coveted item among parents. Inside the kit’s re-usable bag was a collection of tools for parents wishing to introduce the environment in new ways to their children: two books – Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and “Sharing Nature with Children” by Joseph Cornell, local trail maps, information on local outdoor programs for families, a printed summary of information conveyed during the slide show, an aquatic dip net, a bug jar, magnifying glass and box, a small Rite in the Rain journal, tidebook, bubbles, and square piece of sheet for collecting bugs.

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Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (KBNERR)hosted a workshop in Homer in September titled Exploring Our Estuary with Kids,as part of the Reserve’s National Estuaries Day celebration.

Within days of the Reserve’s Exploring Our Estuary with Kids workshop, feedback from parents started rolling in. One mother of two toddler boys exclaimed, “We got our umbrella out of the closet that day and shook all sorts of fascinating bugs out of our bushes and trees. Then we spent time as a family looking at each critter in the magnifying box. It was so much fun! Thank you for doing this!” Another mother told Reserve staff she was so inspired to get outdoors more often that she’s using the slide show summary printout as a checklist of new places to visit and activities to try.

The Research Reserve’s next Kids In Nature workshop for parents will take place in April 2008 as part of Earth Day celebrations at the Alaska Islands & Ocean Visitor Center in Homer. In addition to an indoor session – with more kits distributed, parents will be invited to join Reserve staff outdoors to engage in a few of the recommended activities with their kids.

And next year’s National Estuaries Day (September 2008) will offer another great opportunity for parents and children to participate in a fun outdoor activity –Kachemak Bay’s first BioBlitz. Focusing on Beluga Slough and Beluga Lake in downtown Homer, this will involve numerous bio-teams (which could include kids and families) collecting specimens and sightings of everything from insects and birds to marine invertebrates, fish, and plants over the course of a day. With taxonomic experts heading each bio-team, such an event would give the Reserve a snapshot of this site’s biodiversity, which at this point is not fully understood. What fun for kids – running around capturing examples of everything that moves or grows!

In a social landscape where the game of tag is being outlawed and lawsuits for children’s accidents on private property are commonplace, how can parents or teachers foster a love of the outdoors? Take that first step outside with a youngster, ponder the possibilities of what can be learned from nature, and don’t come in until cold or darkness overcomes you…on the other hand, maybe you’ll want to stay outdoors to experience the darkness.

Carmen Field is a marine educator and naturalist with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve in Homer

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