“We are trying to bring a new deliberateness to which programs we are running when and for whom,” says Marcos Stoltzfus, director of Merry Lea’s Environmental Education Outreach Team (EEO). “We’re asking ‘Who really is our audience?’ and ‘How do we most effectively impact them?’”
One EEO consensus is that enabling children to build ongoing relationships with the natural world is a priority. While one-time, half-day programs will always be part of Merry Lea’s menu, multiple exposures have more potential to change lives and create environmental advocates.
Two programs that Merry Lea provides for its closest school, Wolf Lake Elementary, are examples. Children at Wolf Lake have the option of signing up for PROWL, an after school nature club that meets at Merry Lea. A child who attended every session offered would visit Merry Lea 15 to 20 times a year. Meanwhile, through Wolf Lake’s Kinderforest program, kindergarteners spend a day a month at Merry Lea, rain or shine.
The Kinderforest crew survived its first rainy day in November. Fortunately, a local business had provided matching frog togs for all of the children, so they were outfitted with raincoats, rain pants and boots. The wet, chilly day was harder for the adults than the kids!
One regular Kinderforest ritual is spending time at a “sit spot.” Each child chose a spot in the woods that he or she returns to each visit. On their latest visit, the children managed over ten minutes of listening, looking and observing changes in the natural world around them.
Other activities are chosen to reinforce educational goals. Recently, the children were asked to find colors and shapes in the woods. They also did a counting exercise that involved stringing leaves.
Sometime in the future, it will be interesting to hear these five-year-olds reflect on their Kinderforest experience as adults. Will they continue to spend more time outdoors than their peers? Will they invest in causes that protect nature? Does a bond with creation result in healthier, happier human beings? We hope so. We think we know.