It’s a brisk, slightly foggy morning as my five-year-old self grabs her jacket and runs out the door to “help” my father cut wood. I am just heading straight for the ankle-deep stream that flows through the eight acres of forest behind my home. I sit at my favorite spot next to the stream and feel the soft moss between my fingers, imagining myself a deer, curled up and sleeping soundly until dawn breaks. After the sun warms my face, I decide it is time to cross the stream. I have spent days trying to balance myself on the log that spans the stream, but so far can only accomplish it with the aid of a large walking stick. I am determined to do it on my own today. For the next 20 minutes, I try, falling into the shallow water and soaking my boots each time. As I stand in the water, frustrated, I notice two water beetles swimming in front of me, and squat down to watch them swim in circles around each other, making patterns in the water that I trace with my finger in the air. As I am about to catch them I hear my father call me. I jump up, yelling, “coming!” and head toward his voice, knowing I will be back soon to conquer the log crossing.
How many of you spent the majority of your childhood exploring the outdoors as I did? My guess is, most of you. My outdoor experience growing up was a key factor in my cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development. In the example above, I tested my balance, coordination, and endurance. I learned about disappointment and how to manage frustration with my failings. My experience helped me develop my imagination, observation skills, and manage risk. Finally, because I spent my childhood outside, I found a connection to nature that in turn developed my understanding of conservation. A 2006 Cornell University study demonstrated that children under the age of 11 who have positive experiences in wild nature, tend to develop a strong conservation ethic as adults. Playing outdoors helps create the next generation of conservation leaders.
Every day, the Monk Botanical Gardens' school and public programs provide outdoor experiences for children. This fall, the Gardens offered Head Start in the Gardens program for Marathon county Head Strat students, aged 3-5 years. Combining early childhood education and conservation education is an effective method to prepare children for school and life. Close and constant contact with nature contributes to young children's motor, sensory, social, emotional, moral, and cognitive development, adding to the child’s physical and mental well-being. The Head Start students will spend three hours of their day outdoors, in all types of weather. The season and the interests of the children will drive the curriculum. By the end of the school year, students will have an intimate connection to the Gardens. We may never return to a time when kids roam freely, exploring the natural world on their own, but we can provide similar experiences to our children within today’s social parameters. The Head Start in the Gardens program will accomplish just that while nurturing our future conservation leaders.
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