WITC, UWRF collaborate on getting children back into nature
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.
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.”
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.
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.
so much to offer,” Ward said, “And we need to meet head on with the problem of
apathy toward the child/nature relationship.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
conference also emphasized that nature can (and should) be integrated into our
daily lives and classroom settings.
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