Cultivating children of nature

Local coalition striding forward to make a difference locally, statewide and nationally

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2011

“ ... at this very moment the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical and spiritual health directly to our association with nature — in positive ways.”

— Richard Louv, author “Last Child in the Woods.”

Richard Louv speaks of the benefits children get watching a butterfly quivering by, or the awakening they feel after a romp in the woods leaves them rosey-cheeked and wind-blown. It’s moments like these, he believes, that stimulate youth in ways that enrich, enlighten and enhance lives.

Two years ago, approximately 60 individuals from local organizations gathered to determine how they could work together to get Juneau’s children outdoors. It was moments like those mentioned above they wanted to promote.

Today, the group, Juneau Children Outdoors Coalition, is flourishing and working to make sure local youth are presented an outdoors opportunity each day. The group consists of organizations such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Discovery Southeast, the U.S. Forest Service, SAGA, the Alaska Fish and Wildlife service, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska Southeast, the UAF Cooperative Extension Program, the City and Borough of Juneau Parks and Recreation Department, the Association of the Education of Young Children Southeast Alaska and various individuals, parents and teachers.

Together, pulling from each of their resource pools, the group organizes activities, new and annual, aimed at getting children outside. It’s a simple goal, but one that comes with challenges. Kristen Romanoff, spokesperson for the organization, said it’s often an uphill battle. After all, they’re working against the draw of television, video games, and iEverything technologies that pull youth inside or away from what is going on around them.

“So far, this has been slow to start,” she said. “But the people that are staying involved are all feeling the positive benefits of it. It’s invigorating to be around people who are passionate about this.”

She said it’s a passion that grows from the idea that “what we do in the community is where we make a difference. It takes people coming together with a goal.”

With this idea in mind, the group has made strides. They recently launched a statewide website titled “Get Outdoors! Alaska.” Satellite coalitions in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Homer pool information with the Juneau group to create a hub of information outlining events, safety tips, news and links to other outdoors organizations.

“All local partners can post events and activities in one place,” Romanoff said.

The Juneau coalition is reaching out on local radio waves, as well, to spread the message.

“We now have the Outdoors Report on the radio, which is fed by all groups,” she said. “We’re working more corroboratively on events ... and are able to pool our financial and people resources to have a stronger presence in the community.”

It’s paying off. A few year’s ago, SAGA’S Spring Equinox Jamboree saw only 10 in attendance. Last year, with the help of the coalition, 150 showed up, Romanoff said.

With summer on the horizon, events are already beginning to mount. For instance, the coalition is currently holding their annual Children’s Rain Gear Round-Up. Donations of children’s rain boots, hats and jackets can be dropped off today at the SAGA van from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Alaskan & Proud parking lot. The actual swap event will be held from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at Centennial Hall. Thursday is also the first day of a three-day conference aimed at local youth educators and caregivers titled “Beaches, Boots and Blueberries: Learning Through Nature.” The conference runs Thursday through Saturday, March 12, and will consist of more than 30 workshop sessions. Special guest speakers will include Martin LeBlanc, Leon Smith and Jack Dalton. Participants also have the option of registering for two University of Alaska Southeast credits.

“The conference workshops are really to help childcare providers get over their own hurdles when it comes to getting kids outside,” Romanoff said.

She admitted it can be challenging to get eight kids — or more — out the door on a daily basis, but the conference is aimed at empowering and inspiring individuals to make the effort.

“As a result, kids are happier, healthier and smarter,” she said.

Besides the gear swap and educational sessions at the event, Romanoff said she’s particularly excited about LeBlanc, the keynote speaker. LeBlanc is the national youth education director for the Sierra Club, where he oversees youth programs and advocacy efforts relating to children and nature at the national and state level. He has given over 50 keynote addresses across country. According to a biography provided by the AEYC, LeBlanc led the effort to pass the No Child Left Inside Act in Washington state in 2007 that led to $1.5 million to support over 30 programs. The result? Over 24,000 students were able to get an outdoor education.

LeBlanc’s lecture will happen from 6:30 to 8 p.m. on Thursday and is free and open to the public. He’ll outline the issue and challenges faced in reconnecting children with nature, while highlighting free resources available to help inspire families, teachers and community members to get and stay involved.

Those in attendance will be inspired, Romanoff said.

The Juneau Children Outdoors Coalition will continue to host events. They’ll work together with the ADF&G to present the second annual BioBlitz event happening in June.

In the meantime, Romanoff said those involved want to continue to see awareness about this issue spread throughout the community, as well as the state of Alaska.

“Not only do we want to see this issue brought to families, but also to educators. The group identified the need for Alaska to have an environmental literacy plan,” she said. “Now, there’s many involved in the development of this formal literacy plan aimed at students K through 12. But what’s really neat is that it came out of bringing people together.”

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.



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