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Sarah Milligan Toffler, Executive Director, Children & Nature Network


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C&NN’s Annual Report: Putting Nature at the Center of Community Life

August 3, 2017 | Children & Nature Network |

Tawawa Park photo courtesy of Dakota Dillon, who is pursuing his Bachelor of Science in photography and videography at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

I am pleased to share the Children & Nature Network’s annual report, featuring highlights from 2016, our tenth anniversary year. Looking back at the past decade, we stand on the shoulders of leaders whose vision helped build the children and nature movement. We owe particular gratitude to C&NN’s co-founders: Richard Louv, Dr. Cheryl Charles, Amy Pertschuk, Mike Pertschuk, Martin LeBlanc, Dr. Martha Erickson and the thousands of grassroots leaders working passionately to create a world in which every child experiences a meaningful connection to nature.

I came to this work in a roundabout way. I did not grow up in an “outdoorsy” family, but my mother was a gardener and I was blessed to grow up in a small Ohio town where it was safe to ride my bike everywhere and kids were allowed to explore and play in the woods all summer.

The centerpiece of this small, working class community is Tawawa Park, which I am proud to say was the brainchild of my grandfather, William Milligan. When my dad was a boy, for birthdays and special occasions, the family would hike from their home on North Main Street to a beautiful place called “Big Rock” and cook a big breakfast outdoors. My grandfather had a vision to preserve and share this special place as a public park. According to our family lore, when the property around Big Rock came up for sale, he made a list of five business people from whom he could ask for $10,000 each to raise the $50,000 purchase price. The first person on his list gave him the whole $50,000 and told him to ask the other four for funds to begin developing the park. Today, Tawawa Park is a 220-acre outdoor gathering place where families celebrate weddings, birthdays and graduations. It is filled daily with runners, walkers and sounds of kids playing.

Two generations of Milligan family members dedicating Milligan Glen in honor of their grandparents’ vision, Tawawa Park, circa 1999.

I love this story not only because it is part of my family’s history, but for the inspiration it provides. It is a story about the power of ordinary people coming together to create stronger communities by putting nature at the center of community life. My grandfather was a not an environmentalist. He did not camp or fish. But he understood that a connection to the natural world is central to a meaningful life and a healthy community.

There are thousands of stories like this being created every day, all over the US, and all over the world. Stories of people creating community gardens in high-rise communities. Stories of kids and families being connected to their urban rivers on an unprecedented scale. Stories of school districts adopting outdoor learning as an important strategy to combat achievement gaps and help all students learn.

Our annual report shares some of these stories. Thank you for your support as we work to create equitable access to nature so that children–and natural places–can thrive. We couldn’t do it without you.

For more highlights and leadership writing from the past several years of the children and nature movement, please explore The New Nature Movement blog, featuring commentary from our co-founder, Richard Louv, and friends.

Juan Martinez, Director of Leadership Development and Natural Leaders Network Coordinator, Children & Nature Network


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A Legacy and a Time for Action

July 10, 2017 |Natural Leaders|

I have always loved how much power is packed into the word community. It can mean the place you call home or the people who are most important to you. Communities can be centuries old, or they can form almost overnight.

Last year, I had an opportunity to watch a community come to life right before my eyes.

It happened when two cohorts of young adults––one group from the Los Angeles area; the other from Alaska–– came together for a two-week leadership program called “Fresh Tracks.” Fresh Tracks participants came from different worlds––Compton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Shishmaref, Nome and Anchorage––but, within days of meeting for the first time, they were more than acquaintances. They were a community. And their bond was sealed forever by the power of the outdoors.

One year later, this community leaves a powerful legacy to carry forward. I am thinking of the mark left by the youth leaders who helped start the Fresh Tracks tradition. And I am thinking of President Obama, who inspired Fresh Tracks by calling for programs that use the outdoors as a platform to break barriers for young Americans facing persistent opportunity gaps.

In order for that legacy to live on, we need to lift up more of the leaders and voices who represent the richness and diversity of our country. We believe that Fresh Tracks can be a source of energy in the fight to support the beautiful, wild, and wonderful places that belong to all of us––from Compton to Alaska and Atlanta to Washington D.C. Fresh Tracks is a way to welcome all perspectives into the conversation about the importance of protecting our public and tribal lands, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), on which so much of human life and culture depends.

Now is the time for action. I am very excited that the Natural Leader’s July Train the Trainer program will feature an “Advocacy Champions Training.” Participants will learn how to engage audiences through social media and traditional press, how to communicate with policy makers, how to frame messages, how to write Op-Eds, blogs, and press releases, and how to use short-form video for advocacy. I am especially thrilled that eight Train the Trainer participants are alumni from the inaugural Fresh Tracks expedition. I can’t wait for them to share their experiences with the other training attendees–– and for the whole group to build their advocacy skills through engagement with real issues.

Fresh Tracks is a call to action for all of us who desire to live in a country that is bound by the power of community, by our love for each other, and by the outdoors. When we come together, and when we do so with the outdoors as a backdrop, we can see eye to eye, understanding our differences and becoming stronger together through our journey to a better life.

Jaime Zaplatosch, Director, Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities, Children & Nature Network


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Growing Green Schoolyards Across the U.S.

June 26, 2017 |Green Schoolyards|

Jaime Zaplatosch joined C&NN in August of 2106 as the Director of our Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities Initiative, a project to develop a national platform to scale up the transformation of schoolyards to create access to green space for the health and wellbeing of children, families, and communities. With increased national and international interest in green schoolyards, we sat down with Jaime to talk about green schoolyards and how C&NN is helping to grow them in communities across the U.S.

Q: It seems that there are different interpretations of what a green schoolyard is. How do we at C&NN define green schoolyard?
JZ: The Children and Nature Network looks at green schoolyards in a broad, inclusive way. To us, green schoolyards are multi-functional school grounds that include places for students, teachers, parents and community members to play, learn, explore and grow. They can include outdoor classrooms, native gardens, stormwater capture, traditional play equipment, nature play, vegetable gardens, trails, trees, etc. During out of school time, these schoolyards are ideally open to the community to use.

We believe that this definition is important because of our focus on inclusive community engagement in the design, use and stewardship of green schoolyards, and supporting meeting communities where they are to allow for nature connections in their daily lives, wherever possible.

Q: There’s a growing body of evidence that Green Schoolyards benefit children. Tell us about this.
There is such great foundational research available to support the notion that kids being outside in green schoolyards for play, exploration, and instruction have incredible value. With the findings from an impressive literature review, C&NN created a series of infographics highlighting four main areas of research that show the academic, creative play, physical activity and mental health benefits of green schoolyards. There are new – though not yet published – research findings that support multiple community benefits of green schoolyards as well.

Q: Clearly, all children benefit from nature-filled school environments. How far along is the Green Schoolyards movement?
Green schoolyards are not new. There are many city-wide programs that have been successfully implemented for decades, such as in Boston, New York, Denver, Houston and San Francisco. The green schoolyard programs in these cities embody many of what our Green Schoolyards Report calls, “The Components of Successful Implementation of Green Schoolyards”(see page 13). In fact, these programs personally informed how I built two of the programs that I helped to start at Openlands, where I previously worked. However, the resources and details of these programs are not easily found if you are interested in starting a new green schoolyards program where you live, and understandably those programs are focused on ensuring their own programmatic success. These are real barriers to scaling up the green schoolyard movement.

Q: So, how do we scale up?
JZ: Many people don’t know what a green schoolyard is, but as soon as people do hear about the benefits of green schoolyards – whether they parents, community members, teachers, elected officials or government employees – they want to create a green schoolyard at their school, in their district, or in their municipality. Getting the word out about green schoolyards and their benefits is key, especially to new sectors and through new partners who are able to help put green schoolyards more squarely on the map in terms of general awareness. Water management, public health and health equity agencies, funders and organizations are examples of some of the newer partners who are bringing more awareness to green schoolyards and their benefits. During the Children & Nature Network 2017 Conference, we organized a tour of Green School Grounds in Metro Vancouver so conference participants can get a sense of some of the approaches to green schoolyards.

Q: What is C&NN’s Green Schoolyards plan going forward and how can schools, parents, and communities get involved?
JZ: Our goal is to support green schoolyard program development across the country, at scale. Over the next two years, C&NN, our partners and advisors will help to create a draft Action Agenda for approval by the network at an in-person gathering in 2018. The Action Agenda will likely include federal, state, local and school district policy, a research agenda, communications platforms and additional funding and resources needed to go to scale. This year, we will create an online Resource Hub for municipal agencies, school administrators, informal and formal educators, parents, community members and program providers to advocate for, implement, use and steward new green schoolyards. The resources will mostly be existing resources that we can point to that support C&NN’s broad definition of green schoolyards. We are also supporting five cities in their journey to develop district-wide green schoolyard programs. These include San Francisco, CA, Madison, WI, Providence, RI, Grand Rapids, MI and Austin, TX. They are teaching us what is needed to go to scale, while we are supporting them with best practices from programs across the country.

Q: What simple features can turn a schoolyard into a “green schoolyard”?
JZ: Many schoolyards are currently all asphalt or grass with playground equipment and (maybe) benches. These schoolyards are missing a diversity of schoolyard elements that offer a variety of play, learning and physical activity opportunities that are needed in order to access the full list of benefits that we highlight in our infographics. So, creating outdoor classroom spaces made from natural materials, planting trees and gardens, and adding generally adding varied nature to these spaces is key to creating a green schoolyard. There are so many additional components, like trails, nature play, and art that are important components of a green schoolyard, depending on the school, community and program goals.

Q: Is this a phenomenon in the US or do other countries also value the benefits of green schoolyards?
JZ: Green schoolyards are not a U.S. phenomenon. There is a great organization, the International School Grounds Alliance, that has been leading the international charge around convening leaders in the greening of school grounds around the world. It is a great resource for those outside of the U.S.

Stay tuned for more action and resources related to C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities initiative.

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