Plugging into nature

Local coalition aims to get kids off couches, excited about Juneau's outdoor playground

Posted: Friday, March 12, 2010

In a generation of technology and electronic entertainment, the outdoor world can become an unfamiliar place to many children in Alaska and around the world.

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Photo By Kristen Romanoff
Photo By Kristen Romanoff

And with all the natural beauty this state has to offer, one local group feels it's vitally important to share nature today's youth.

The Juneau Children Outdoors Community Coalition is a nonprofit organization that is putting energy and resources into helping local children connect with nature.

Comprised of community residents, environmental educators, nonprofit and natural resource agency staff members, medical professionals and teachers, the coalition is one of five that have been created in Alaska for the common cause of connecting children with the natural world and promoting stewardship and healthy lifestyles.

"We've recognized that kids, even in a place like Juneau with all these beautiful natural areas, are spending less time outside, and it's concerning to us for a number of reasons," Kristen Romanoff, a wildlife education specialist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said. "For me as a mom, I want my own children and all kids to have the benefit that comes with having a relationship with the natural world."

"So, the coalition is really recognizing that there's great health and emotional benefits to kids, and even benefits to their learning when they spend time outside," she said.

Members of this coalition will team up to present the Spring Equinox Jamboree on Saturday, March 20, at SAGA's Eagle Valley Center Lodge.

Romanoff said the idea is to combine the efforts of several organizations to maximize support for an event geared toward the education of youth in the city of Juneau. Groups like the 4-H Outdoor Skills Club, the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Juneau, Discovery Southeast and the Association for the Education of Young Children will team up with SAGA and the ADF&G to host different events from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"That's the power of having the coalition ... we're finding ways to do it collectively rather than each having competing things going on," Romanoff said. "We support and build upon what we offer."

She said what they offer is a chance for children to interact with nature.

"We can offer opportunities for children and families to participate in events, and we give them some minimal guidance to that experience outdoors," Romanoff said. "And it's not so overly structured that they can't explore. We want to provide opportunities for kids to explore and to have their parents, or any sort of family member, join them and to be inspired to do that on their own."

She also said one of the group's biggest concerns is for the well-being of the environment in the future.

"If kids aren't spending time outdoors and they do not have a relationship with the natural world, then there is the concern over who our stewards are going to be," Romanoff said. "Who are those people that are going to care about decisions that affect the natural resources in Alaska if kids don't have that time now outside?"

Romanoff said along with many of her associates, it was outdoor experiences as children that led them to become what they are today.

"Kids are so used to so much stimulation through television and computer and video games, that, often times, if you just kick a child outside in the yard, they will not know what to do with themselves," she said. "Yet, research also shows the importance of unstructured time playing outside."

And time outside - in nature - is not something that can be simulated on a television screen.

• Matthew Tynan can be reached at matthew.tynan@juneauempire.com.



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