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WITC, UWRF collaborate on getting children back into nature

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College – NewRichmond’s Early Childhood Education programs recently collaborated to host 'That Moment of Wonder: Exploring Nature Inside Out and Outside In'.

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College – New Richmond’s Early Childhood Education programs recently collaborated to host “That Moment of Wonder: Exploring Nature Inside Out and Outside In.” Parents, teachers and others concerned about early childhood issues attended the daylong conference September 26 at UWRF.  The event focused on the urgent need to reconnect children with nature both at home and in the educational setting.

 “Our world today is changing in so many domains, and that includes our view of nature,” said Gay Ward, Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at UWRF.  “Parents are often hesitant to let their children interact with nature because they are afraid of negative consequences.” 

 She explained that until the last few decades, children played freely outdoors building tree houses, making mud pies, digging in the dirt with Tonka trucks and climbing the small tree in the back yard.  Over the years, the consensus about nature has dramatically changed because parents have the perception that it’s simply too dangerous along with other fears.

 Research shows that children today are facing many consequences resulting from little or no connection with nature.  Some of the consequences include childhood obesity, lack of creativity and curiosity, loss of respect for nature and the living world and a lessened sense of community.

 “Nature has so much to offer,” Ward said, “And we need to meet head on with the problem of apathy toward the child/nature relationship.” 

 She explained that it’s essential for children to have real-life connections with nature now, when they are young, if they are going to be good stewards and take care of it when they’re older. 

 Thanks to collaboration between the UWRF and Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College Early Childhood Education Departments, Ward, Molly Gerrish, Mary Williams-Greene, Vicki Harmon and several others are leading the way to help change the direction of the eroding relationship between children and nature. 

 “The idea of offering a conference focused on getting children back into nature is something we’ve been passionate about for many years,” Ward said.  After attending “Connect the Child to Nature World Forum” in the fall of 2006, Ward and Williams-Greene knew that getting children back outdoors was essential to healthy early childhood development, and they designated this mission as a primary goal in their early childhood collaboration.  Their first connecting-to-nature conference, “Seeds of Learning,” was held in 2007 and has been an annual event ever since.

 This year’s conference focused on ways for parents and professionals to engage children with nature while teaching valuable skills in compassion, responsibility, problem-solving, creative thinking, math, science and art. 

 Participants started the day with a brisk morning walk and later welcomed guest speaker Pam Welisevich, a naturalist and animal care coordinator from the Dodge Nature Center in St. Paul.  Welisevich, who heads a nature-based child/parent program, explained that it’s important to encourage families to see nature differently and feel comfortable interacting with the many life forms found in nature. 

 “The positive outcomes of encouraging children to get excited about getting their hands dirty and waking up their senses of sight, smell, hearing and touch are endless,” Welisevich said.  Some of the benefits include increased large and small motor skill development, reduction in fears to the outdoors, enhanced observation skills, and increased trust and compassion.

 Ruth Forsgren, a staff naturalist from Beaver Creek Reserve in Fall Creek, Wis., also spoke at the event.  Forsgren and others who help operate several programs at the reserve host 55,000 kids per year at their 400-acre nature center.  Conference attendees learned how to identify various frog species and their unique calls along with ideas on how to engage children through story telling. 

 Throughout the day, participants learned many strategies to help connect children to nature including how to make a worm bin, how to create a “talking stick” – an object made from nature that when passed to a child in a group setting lets him or her know it’s their turn to talk; nature rubbings, and many other activities to apply in home or educational settings.  Participants had the opportunity to experience “connecting with nature” both outdoors and in a classroom setting just like children are encouraged to do.

 “When working with young children, the simpler the project, the better,” said Vicki Harmon, Early Childhood Education Instructor at WITC.  “Everyday activities that seem insignificant to adults are often fascinating to children.”  For example, the fall months provide several opportunities to get children outside to investigate the beautiful colors, changes in plants and trees, and to pick the apple harvest.  Nature also provides a way to appreciate diversity – everything doesn’t eat the same thing, live the same way or look the same, whether they are from similar species or not.

 The conference also emphasized that nature can (and should) be integrated into our daily lives and classroom settings. 

 “By supporting natural investigations and using natural materials, parents, professionals and others can help instill a compassion for all life forms, an attitude of love and respect for others, and a commitment to teaching stewardship and gratitude in children, our future leaders,” Ward said. “We can all learn how to see awe and wonder if we just open our hearts and lives to nature’s gifts.”