We ate dinner outdoors tonight. We do that a lot during the summer months. We have a 10 foot by 20 foot backyard that looks out over a big community park below us. I like to hear kids laughing and the squeak of the swings as they move back and forth, back and forth. There’s a way the sun cuts through the trees when it sets so that only some of the leaves on some of the trees light up. Rods of light pierce through the foliage and make patterns on the lawn. Kids play in the sandbox. They ride their scooters, bikes and trikes. Families celebrate special occasions with balloons and homemade food. On holiday weekends, parents set up relay races and pick-up softball games to play with their kids.
I watch the hummingbirds flit around from the highest tree branches making those little clicking chirps. Our whole family is entranced with a family of hawks that have taken up residence in the branches above us. My five year old can spot them better than I can. The hawks fly silently so they can get their prey, but my daughter senses them above her and points them out to me. My son sketches them in his sketchbooks and speaks endlessly about the traits that would lead him to identify them as either a Cooper’s Hawk, Red-Tailed Hawk, or Red-Shouldered Hawk. The kids spot butterflies and like the way the air smells at this time of evening.
My husband and I are nature lovers, so I can’t imagine our kids growing up and not noticing these things. I can’t imagine our kids not slowing down to look at something “cool” in nature. I can’t imagine us not playing outside more than inside. It’s just something we “do” as a family. However, I think some credit must be given to the Orange County community which supports our parental wish to have our children not only aware of nature around them, but for them to be engaged and interested in their natural world.
It starts with a parent
I love the outdoors. I go to parks all the time with my kids. We started with playgrounds, but any mom will tell you that her kids never stay on the playground. The kids lead moms into nature adventures at the park. It’s usually a matter of waiting for the kids to decide which off-playground option to pursue: climbing trees, digging in the mud, splashing in a puddle, or climbing on rocks. Play dates and playgroups are the first introduction a parent has to adventuring to parks with other moms and families. Parents notice that the kids are tired after a day of play; the kids are happy after a day of play. Parents try to squeeze in more play time, but often they don’t know where to go to find new adventures.
It forms into a Family Nature Club
We took it to the next level when my youngest turned 4. With the help of the Children and Nature Network toolkit, we started a family Nature Play Club. Every month, my family and three others pledged to spend a few hours on a Saturday together in nature. We tried new places, because we are a small group. Somehow, a group feels safer than one mom and one kid in a new place. We got closer to our kids. We focused on nature. We got closer to each other. Our families really enjoyed our nature time. Everyone can’t always make it, but the absentees usually make nature time a priority during part of that particular weekend. In fact, families have even been known to take their clan camping for the WHOLE weekend in place of attending Nature Play Club. That’s okay with me!
It sparks an interest in exploring more natural spaces
We are lucky to have such a wide range of open space, parks, and playgrounds for outdoor play in Orange County. I’ve been at it three years and have almost 200 parks mapped on my blog. I can’t see finishing my job anytime soon. Our Nature Club often comes up with outing ideas based on “a place I’ve always wanted to go.” The official county park entity, OCParks.com, offers impressive regional parks all over Orange County. I get a parking pass every year. Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks is my second stop when looking for unique spaces and guided hikes. Try visiting one of our local nature centers and talk to the rangers and volunteers.
It’s reinforced by local educators, naturalists, and rangers
Inside the Outdoors (ITO) is the entity at the forefront of providing environmental education to the school children of Orange County. Each year, this organization reaches over 152,000 students, teachers, parents, and community members, empowering them to expand their knowledge. One student at James Guinn Elementary said: “I felt like I could actually help our world…I’ve become a new person by going to Inside the Outdoors. I’ve become more aware of the environment, more responsible.” Any time a Traveling Scientist enters a local classroom, or an ITO community program invites families out on a night hike, or provides a child access to service learning projects in an outdoor and hands-on environment — the kids are gaining a new perspective and new appreciation for their world. They are also seeing that they can make a difference on an individual level. Funding partners are the key to the continued success of Inside the Outdoors as they rely on the support of individual donors and institutional funders to their Inside the Outdoors Foundation.
Let’s keep it going!
We’ve got a good thing going here in Orange County. I hope it continues to gather momentum and encourage partnerships between all of the nature-loving entities in the county. There’s nothing better than going out into my own community to participate in programs and being proud to introduce my kids to positive role models.