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Elissa Hoagland Izmailyan, Director, Cities Connecting Children to Nature


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Louisville Youth Outdoor Programs Cultivate Environmental Stewards

August 30, 2018 | Children & Nature Network |

In West Louisville, the newest generation of environmental stewards are restoring local parks and their neighborhoods’ connection to nature, laying the foundation for equitable public and philanthropic park investment.

With support from the SummerWorks program, 12 youth employed by Louisville Metro Parks devoted the summer to park improvements and nature programming in West Louisville. SummerWorks, a program of the regional Workforce Development Board (Kentuckiana Works), seeks to “strengthen the long-term foundation of our economy and our community.” This year, the program placed over 1,000 16-21-year-olds at seasonal jobs with partner employers.

Meanwhile, as part of its Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN)  initiative launched in 2015, Louisville Metro Parks identified West Louisville as a priority geography for programming and investment to reduce racial and economic barriers to nature access. In response to local demand for green career opportunities, Louisville Metro Parks (“LMP”)  launched its partnership with SummerWorks in 2017 as part of its broader investment in its Engaging Children Outdoors youth nature programming initiative.

Parks SummerWorks employees worked in teams of six under the supervision of job coach and site-supervisor Jocari Beattie and other Louisville Metro Parks staff. Their principal responsibilities were to lead nature programming for 130 younger children at three West Louisville recreation centers and to construct a bicycle pump track at Shawnee Park for the use and enjoyment of the broader community.  

The youth employees gained on-the-job career training, including learning to safely operate heavy machinery in the construction of the bicycle pump track. They also participated in professional development trainings on leadership skills, resume creation, and financial literacy, among other topics. Beattie cites “water breaks, perseverance, and positivity” as the keys to success.

The program cost roughly $30,000, funded by a grant from Kentuckiana Works and in-kind donations from Aetna Health for the bicycle pump track. Engaging youth employees in valuable activities — park improvements and youth programming —created efficiencies for Louisville Metro Parks and delivered multiple benefits through a single grant.

Beattie notes that many of the young employees plan to continue with park stewardship and volunteering throughout the year,  yielding additional benefits to the parks and residents of West Louisville. Louisville Metro Parks aims to grow its SummerWorks program with a recent two-year funding commitment to increase the number of youths employed during the summer and extend supportive programming/engagement year-round.

Youth leadership will be critical to activate and sustain long-term investment in West Louisville. In partnership with other public and private entities, Louisville Metro Parks is pursuing a series of long-range capital investments in West Louisville consistent with its CCCN vision, including: environmental remediation of Chickasaw Pond, park improvements along the Ohio River, and a new, state-of-the-art Outdoor Learning Center at Shawnee Park.

Mayor Fischer offered his support for these plans in his 2018 State of the City address, noting that “we’re connecting kids to nature because we know that spending time outdoors has tremendous benefits for physical and mental health.”

 

Thatcher Heldring, Fresh Tracks


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Sharing Cultures, Igniting Futures in Indiana

August 26, 2018 | Children & Nature Network |

 

Since early June, Fresh Tracks has impacted three diverse cohorts of aspiring and accomplished youth leaders representing urban, rural, and tribal communities in all regions of the United States.

That momentum continued over the weekend of August 10-12 at the Dunes Learning Center in the heart of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The third Fresh Tracks Training of 2018 brought together young adults from states and tribal nations all over the Midwest.

States Represented: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, and Ohio

Tribal Nations: Fort Berthold, Cheyenne River, Turtle Mountain Chippewa, Navajo, Sicangu Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, Gros Ventre, White Earth Ojibwe, Keweenaw Bay Ojibwe, Standing Rock Sioux, Crow, Menominee

We are grateful for the generosity of our sponsors – Walmart Foundation, REI, Casey Family Programs, and the Newman’s Own Foundation – who are investing in the next generation of leaders and to our partners  – the Children & Nature Network’s Natural Leaders, the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance at the Obama Foundation, and Opportunity Youth United – who collectively provide essential support on programming, recruiting, and strategy.

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 These sponsors and partners have made it possible to hold three regional training programs in 2018. And we are now recruiting participants for our fourth experience of the year, the Southwest and Intermountain Training in Abiquiú, New Mexico.

EXPLORING CULTURES TOGETHER

The spirit of cultural sharing began at a pre-training gathering in Chicago, where CNAY Champion for Change and Fresh Tracks Trainer Anthony Tamez (Wuskwi Sipihk First Nations Cree/Sicangu Lakota/Black) hosted a welcome feast at the Chicago American Indian Center for staff and fellow trainers. Later, at the Herrick Lake Forest Preserve, urban, rural, and tribal youth paddled Herrick Lake and explored the outdoors together after being welcomed by a hand drum song from members of the Chi-Nations Youth Council.

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At a Cultural Share on Saturday evening, the participants shared meaningful aspects of their cultures, from jewelry, beadwork, Mexican ‘dulce’ candies, and weaving to spoken word poetry and a strategic plan presentation by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Youth Council that would set the tone for an inspiring session on the final day.

TURNING PLANS INTO ACTION

Fresh Tracks does not just train young adults to be leaders. Fresh Tracks gives young leaders the support they need to transform their dreams of change into action.  On Sunday afternoon, near the conclusion of the Midwest Training, the participants gathered together in Action Teams to pitch projects they had developed to a mock panel of city council members.

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 For the participants, it was an opportunity to practice the real-world process of persuasion. What does it take to convince decision-makers that an idea meets the political, financial, and logistical criteria to actually get implemented?

One-by-one, each group addressed the panel, which heard a variety of proposals. True to the Fresh Tracks spirit, most Actions Teams were made up of both Native and non-Native youth, bringing cross-cultural influences to each project, including:

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  • A program that connects youth to the outdoors through gardening, develops math and science skills, models the importance of self-care, and generates operating revenue from the sale of harvested fruits and vegetables.
  • A leadership camp to help Native American youth experience nature – physically and spiritually – as a way to give them purpose, exposure to the outdoors through hiking, camping, and fishing, and the means to bring nature back to the city by creating gardens and other urban outdoor spaces.
  • A school-based program to engage experts to develop environmental education curriculum in partnership with other community organizations. The premise: nature-based learning reduces stress levels and school violence and helps researchers expand the knowledge base about the alternative approaches to education – a community benefit for all.
  • An anthology of stories and essays by young indigenous writers that would be relevant for communities of color and educational for non-Native audiences. The CNAY Movement Builders Fellows who pitched the project noted that they have actually raised enough funding to cover the costs of a small printing and to produce an ebook that will be downloadable on a suggested donation basis.

The panel responded with questions the Fresh Tracks participants might expect to hear in a public proceeding. How will this benefit the community? What is the source of your funding? Which community groups have pledged support for your project? The panel also pushed each group to consider critical points – from the strategic value of matching grants to the importance of using the language of the entities they were petitioning.

ON TO ABIQUIU

As the participants in the Midwest Training at the Dunes Learning Center return to their communities equipped with new skills,  knowledge, and connections to fuel their plans for action, Fresh Tracks is preparing for the fourth regional training of 2018 – in Abiquiú, New Mexico. Thank you to all of the sponsors and partners who are making these experiences possible.

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Thatcher Heldring, Fresh Tracks


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July 31, 2018 | Children & Nature Network |

Over the weekend of July 13-15, a diverse cohort of young adults from urban, rural, and tribal communities located all over the Pacific Coast came together on the campus of California State University, Long Beach for three days of cultural sharing, leadership development, and outdoor exploration.

This was the second Fresh Tracks experience of the summer, following the Northeast training outside of Boston in early June. Already this year, Fresh Tracks has given more than 70 young adults a platform to expand their leadership skills. And we’re recruiting more young leaders for upcoming programs in the Midwest (August) and Southwest (September)!

None of this would be possible without the generosity of our sponsors – Walmart Foundation, REI, Casey Family Programs, and the Newman’s Own Foundation – who are investing in the next generation of leaders.

We are also grateful to our partners  – the Children & Nature Network’s Natural Leaders, the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance at the Obama Foundation, and Opportunity Youth United – who collectively provide essential support on programming, recruiting, and strategy.

Fresh Tracks would also like to thank our guest speakers: Jean Lim Flores from REI, Judge Deborah Sanchez, Tribal Councilman Vincent Holguin, and Dr. Sharoni Little, Fresh Tracks Evaluator, CEO of The Strategist Company, and Professor at the USC Marshall School of Business. Thank you also to Carl Carranza of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium for welcoming Fresh Tracks to Cabrillo Beach.

CULTURAL SHARING, LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT, AND OUTDOOR ENGAGEMENT

Fresh Tracks participants bonding outdoors at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, California.

After two years of programming, Fresh Tracks remains committed to its core outcomes of cultural competency, civic engagement, and leadership development. Each training brings together young leaders from diverse cultural communities, creating a powerful forum for an exchange of ideas and solutions to drive positive social change in communities across the United States.

We also continue to use the outdoors as a platform to forge bonds, build trust, and empower leaders, from the Atlantic Coast of Massachusetts to Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, California, where the most recent cohort of Fresh Tracks participants explored the local natural surroundings with educators from the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.

And, we stay true to our promise to be there for participants beyond the training. As long as Fresh Tracks leaders want to move forward with their dreams of community action, we will be there to support them.

 

 

FROM PARTICIPANT TO TRAINER

Fresh Tracks has changed my life greatly. It helped me see things in myself that I may have felt were there but had not been able to bring out. It made me accept that I am a leader and I do have an impact.

— Cameron Williamson-Martin, Fresh Tracks Trainer

Cameron (Cam) Williamson-Martin, from Los Angeles, is living proof of the Fresh Tracks promise. Cam was a participant on the Fresh Tracks pilot expedition in 2016. The opportunities and challenges he experienced during that two-week trip were transformative. Less than a year later, Cam completed a training to become a Fresh Tracks leader. This weekend, he was a core member of the leadership team for the West Coast training in Long Beach, mentoring other young adults just beginning their own Fresh Tracks journeys, leading workshops on Leadership IQ and Community Engagement, and helping to identify the next corps of Fresh Tracks leaders.

THE MEMORY OF YOUR PEOPLE IS IN YOUR HEARTS

For a Fresh Tracks leader, preparing for a lifetime of impact starts with knowing your own story. The importance of personal narrative was a theme throughout the West Coast Training at Long Beach, and the focus of a workshop led by Fresh Tracks trainers Luz Alejos and Christie Wildcat. The participants also explored how personal narrative is often rooted in their own pasts. Judge Deborah Sanchez, a guest speaker, spoke about how she inherited her dedication to community service from her Chumash, O’odham and Raramuri ancestors. In a moving Culture Share, many of the participants used poetry, song, and storytelling to illustrate how their personal narratives and cultures are tied into their advocacy efforts.

Culture is a part of how we see ourselves, and how we see others. That was one of the lessons imparted in a powerful session on implicit bias led by Dr. Sharoni Little, Evaluator for Fresh Tracks, CEO of The Strategist Company, and a professor at the USC Marshall School of Business. Pointing to examples from popular culture and her own life, Dr. Little gave the participants new skills to acknowledge and disrupt implicit bias – to avoid determining a person’s abilities based on how they look.

Throughout the West Coast training, the participants worked in Action Teams to develop community action plans. Action plans are facilitated road maps for turning their aspirations for change into real action.

During the training, the participants also had the opportunity to meet two special guests who have leveraged their aspirations for community impact into careers. On Saturday morning, Jean Lim Flores, Outdoor Programs and Outreach Market Coordinator for REI in Los Angeles, shared how she combined her personal and professional passions by inspiring others to love the outdoors. On Sunday, Vincent Holguin, Tribal Councilman for the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, described his own career path, his decision to go to law school, and his belief that true change often requires a change in leadership.

THE TRUE POWER OF CHANGE STARTS AT HOME

The Fresh Tracks experience does not end when participants go home. That important note was stressed as a call to action for everyone present. The young leaders who completed the West Coast training departed with new skills and awareness, a network of like-minded peers from cultural communities in several states, and a platform of support offered by Fresh Tracks. The contributions of time, funding, and expertise made by our partners and supporters are investments in these young leaders and their determination to change the trajectory of their lives and their communities forever.

 

Monica Lopez Magee, Director, Community Leadership Development


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The Sounds of Community, Learning & Service

May 3, 2018 | Children & Nature Network |

Listen! I mean really listen and “you hear peace and you hear nature,” as Lilah Xiong describes her time at Dodge Nature Center during a recent Natural Leaders Community Blitz in the Twin Cities. When I stopped to listen…

I heard young leaders sharing their personal and community stories they had developed in the personal narrative session.

I heard bees from the hive colonies on site and chickens fluttering in the coops as we toured the 30 acres at Dodge Nature Center.

I heard saws grinding away at invasive buckthorn as we tried to clear an overgrown area.

I noticed people smiling, laughing, and leaning in to listen closer.

“I notice that when we are real quiet. The outdoors is really loud,” were Abdidas Rodriguez’s observations.

More than what I heard, I felt inspired by the connections being made and by the service I was witnessing.

Stop. Listen. And watch for yourself.

Video created by CJ Goulding

We would like to thank Dodge Nature Center for opening their gates to make this experience possible, and for all of the individuals and organizations who attended.

All of these inspiring leaders (as well as any young leaders between the ages of 16 and 24 in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area) were invited back to the 2018 Twin Cities Legacy Camp at Camp St. Croix. Led by participants from the 2017 Twin Cities Legacy Camp, we continued the community building, leadership development, service and exploration of the outdoors. We also added learning about other cultures, a visit to the Minnesota Zoo, a City Nature Challenge, and a job fair.

 
Jennifer Bristol, Coordinator for Texas Children in Nature (TCiN)

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Austin Celebrates New Green School Park at Barrington Elementary

April 25, 2018 | Children & Nature Network |

“This is Austin’s first Green School Park. We don’t have these across the city yet, but  this is an idea that can spread when we dare to say ‘yes’ on behalf of the children.”Dr. Paul Cruz, Superintendent, Austin Independent School District (AISD)

On March 24, 2018 kids, parents, teachers, administrators, and elected and appointed officials gathered to dedicate the first Green School Park at Barrington Elementary School. The Green School Park concept is designed to activate school campuses with vibrant, nature-filled outdoor classrooms and natural play areas that allow for learning and activity during school time and are open for park use by the community during out-of-school time.

The Green School Park concept is a result of the City of Austin’s participation in the Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative, jointly-led by the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) and National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families (NLC).

Barrington Elementary School was selected for this project following an equity mapping exercise that identified neighborhoods with park deficits. Like many Austin neighborhoods, the community around Barrington developed rapidly and without time to adequately plan for parks to meet the growth. However, many of the schools in the area have large outdoor spaces that can serve a dual purpose as a school campus and a community park.

Austin Independent School District (AISD) and the City of Austin have adopted this innovative idea and will add an additional demonstration site at Woolridge Elementary School. There are twenty-four schools in Austin that have a joint use agreement between the city and the school district that could be used in the same way. The majority of these schools are also located in fully developed neighborhoods that lack equitable access to parks and green spaces.   

Speaking at the dedication, Texas State Parks Director, Brent Leisure stated, “It’s exciting to see that Barrington is embracing the idea that learning can take place on the entire campus and not just inside the classroom. This Green School Park gives children a path to discovery. A path to learning. A path to understanding how they are part of the natural world. And a path to caring for the nature right under their own feet.”

Dr. Stephen Pont, Director of Science and Population Health at Department of State Health Services shared, “Research shows that when children learn and play in nature they are healthier–mentally and physically, have higher self-esteem, are more creative, feel more connected to nature and perform better in school.” Dr. Pont also serves on the C&NN Board of Directors.

At the dedication, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department gave the school a set of “loose parts” to facilitate nature play on the campus. Principle Gilma Sanchez accepted the gift, thanked all the many partners that worked on the project, then invited guests to explore the campus and enjoy the many activity stations set up along the walking trail and sports field. In the spirit of the school’s mascot, the children raced towards the activities like a stampede of wild Mustangs.  

The community is invited to enjoy the Green School Park during out-of-school-time and this summer. It will be exciting for children and families to experience the National Wildlife Federation’s Pollinator Garden and donated trees reaching their full potential over the next few seasons Additionally, the campus will continue to receive improvements in phases as other partners are brought into the project.  

 
Sarah Milligan-Toffler, Executive Director, C&NN
 Judy Braus, Executive Director, NAAEE

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Introducing eeRESARCH: A New Partnership to Advance the Evidence Base for the Field

April 9, 2018 | Children & Nature Network |

We are so excited to announce the launch of a new research library: eeRESEARCH . This database is a partnership between the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE) and C&NN, with support from the Pisces Foundation. With more than 1,000 peer-reviewed articles, summaries, and syntheses, eeRESEARCH represents one of the largest single collections of peer-reviewed literature focused on environmental education and connecting people to nature in the world (at least we think it’s one of the largest!).

We know that new and exciting research articles are published daily about environmental education and connecting people to nature. Unfortunately, the majority of that research is behind firewalls that are not accessible to practitioners, funders, parents, and others seeking to understand what the research says about what works and how to improve practice in the field.

Through this new collaborative effort, eeRESEARCH provides free access to the combined research collections of both C&NN and NAAEE in one, user-friendly online portal. We have included a summary of the articles, as well links to a number of syntheses that look across the research to help highlight key understandings. And we will provide access to the full articles when they have open access rights. After more than a year of planning and designing the database, we are so pleased to contribute to improving the availability of research for everyone working to improve their practice, strengthen equitable access to nature and high-quality environmental education opportunities, and build a more sustainable future for all.

Advancing a research agenda for this field and translating the evidence in meaningful ways are daunting tasks for any one organization or group to accomplish alone. Through our combined efforts, we feel that we have forged a new path for how organizations can work together to not only advance our organizational goals, but also to truly advance the field. By joining forces, we are leveraging the strengths of both organizations, aligning on the process for research collection, and sharing information broadly between our networks—efforts that we believe will help improve practice based on available research. And we hope to add new partners in the future!

Please take time to explore the site, let us know what you think, and keep helping us make this library as useful as possible. Thanks again to the Pisces Foundation for helping to make this a reality, to our friends at Duke University for helping with the research summaries and overall planning, and to all our colleagues who helped us think through what this might look like, how it could work, and what type of search function would help all of us find what we’re looking for. And a huge thanks to Bill Finnegan at Tamarack Media for building the site and working with all our partners to make it come alive!

Happy searching!

Margaret Lamar, VP, Strategic Initiatives, C&NN

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Creating Equitable Access to Nature’s Benefits in Cities

February 27, 2018 | Children & Nature Network |

Today’s children are experiencing a growing disconnect from the natural world, with some facing greater barriers to nature than others. Two key factors play a role in whether or not kids have regular access to green space: income level and race. In order for all children to benefit from nature in their everyday lives, we need to address systems that perpetuate barriers for low-income children and communities of color.

With this challenge in mind, the Children & Nature Network and the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families partnered to launch Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) in 2015. This initiative connects grassroots community efforts with municipal leaders who can drive policy change and allocate resources. With the completion of our 3-year pilot, we can now celebrate the accomplishments of 7 U.S. cities who are demonstrating real progress in creating equitable access to nature. I’ve had the privilege of working closely in each of these cities with great people who have been willing to think differently about what nature access means.

While not an exhaustive list, I’ve observed that cities making the most progress in equitable nature access employed the following actions:  

  1. Find the truth about what’s happening in neighborhoods.

Instead of making assumptions about barriers to nature access, successful cities took the time to ask children, youth and families about their outdoor experiences. We learned that creating a citywide gap analysis requires thoughtful techniques for data collection. The City of Saint Paul, MN, for example, hired young adults to survey people within their communities at gathering places such as libraries and grocery stores. In Providence, RI, the city collected drawings and stories from children in low-income communities to learn about their connections to nature. These cities then designed communications and youth stewardship initiatives to address specific disconnects between local residents and their neighborhood parks.

  1. Invite all relevant voices to the table.

Citywide solutions were co-produced between city government and residents when municipal staff and officials listened, valued and included community voices in decision-making. The City of Madison, WI launched its Parks Master Plan process with youth providing input at critical points throughout. High school interns, mostly young women of color, collected information from peers and residents across the city to help park leaders better understand the relationship between people of color and their public green spaces.

  1. Hitch nature access to cities’ most pressing priorities.

We often think of nature connection as belonging to parks & recreation departments. But to achieve broad systems change, cities canincorporate nature connection strategies to support a wide range of civic goals, from economic development and racial equity to education, transportation, public health and sustainability. In Louisville, KY, the city’s focus on economic development inspired green-facing jobs for youth. In San Francisco, CA the city placed a focus on nature play and learning childcare centers in low-income neighborhoods. In Saint Paul, MN, the city’s library system created “Nature-Smart Libraries,” linked with parks to enhance literacy development and environmental education, and to provide opportunities for youth leadership development.

  1. Address policies rooted in racial and income disparities.  

Historically, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have received inequitable investment, requiring more than additional outreach and programming to realize the vision of all children experiencing nature.  It is exciting to see CCCN cities make progress toward policy changes that will help close their nature gaps. In Grand Rapids, MI, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and public schools superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal joined forces to amplify capital investment in green schoolyards. Similarly, in Austin, TX, the city and the school district partnered to leverage a shared-use policy that established a Green School Parks program. The City of Austin also passed a Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights with the full support of Mayor Adler and their city council.

Our seven CCCN pilot cities now serve as living examples of how to link city leadership with community voices and action to achieve equity in nature access. Our challenge now lies in scaling the groundbreaking work of these cities so that more communities—rural and urban, large and small—can make progress toward ensuring that all residents have access to nature’s many benefits.


Visit the Cities Connecting Children to Nature Resource Hub for information, tools and resources, including the CCCN Municipal Action Guide.

Join the CCCN Peer Learning Network.

Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) provides city leaders with technical assistance, training and peer learning opportunities to increase equitable access to nature so that children, families and communities can thrive.

Nicole Hanlin, Santee Family Nature Club Leader

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Family Nature Club Impact Stories: Facilitating New Pathways for Communication in Nature

January 9, 2018 | Children & Nature Network |

This post is a part of our Family Nature Club (FNC) stories series. The FNC stories are drawn from the 15 organizations which C&NN awarded Family Nature Club stipends in 2017. The recipients include volunteer clubs, nonprofit organizations and government departments, both nationally as well as in two countries outside of the United States.

Using the funding, Nature Adventure Backpacks and online training from C&NN, these FNCs were able to engage 455 families, resulting in 1,396 children and adults spending 5,693 total hours in nature. While the numbers are significant, it is the individual experiences that remind us the power nature has to connect people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities through the shared wonder and enjoyment of nature. Santee FNC Leader, Nicole Hanlin shares her account of the universal language nature has to offer.


Conversation isn’t something that comes easy to Santee Family Nature Club members. Members are neurodiverse; some are non-verbal, partially-verbal, some use gestures to communicate while others use technology, and some are fully verbal.

When out in nature, I find the way people communicate is fairly universal… a smile and giggle means you’re having fun, a wave of the hand means “hello,” pointing to a tree means you want others to enjoy what you see, looking in the direction of a bird call means you hear the birds communicating and in our club, flapping your hands means you’re “excited.” Plato said, “you learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” I couldn’t agree more.

On one of our many adventures at a nearby natural area, I invited our local school district’s adaptive physical education teacher to join us. All of our kids have had this teacher at some point, so it seemed only natural to invite him to join the fun. At first, the kids were a bit shocked and skeptical to see a teacher present. For good reason, as our club has always been a free play, child-led club. As we started down the path, the perfect climbing tree appeared on the horizon, and I knew the kids would be eager to climb it. As the kids flocked toward the tree, a non-verbal six-year-old gently grabbed the teacher’s hand and led him to the bottom of the tree. The little boy began to climb the lowest branches, looking back at the teacher periodically to assess his own upward progress. By the time the boy was about three feet up the tree, I saw his hand reach down to help the teacher up into the tree. The teacher beamed at the boy’s kind gesture and began to ascend–yet no words were exchanged. As other parents were inspired to join the children in the tree, laughter became our only conversation

I am delighted to share that such experiences for nature connection — expressed in any form of communication available to the child — will be more frequent in our local school district. A nature club program designed specifically for children with special needs was enthusiastically approved by the school board. The Santee Nature Club is now the environmental educator for the entire special education program for all of Santee schools! The best part is that we will be reaching 80 children with this new program. I am grateful to C&NN for believing in our club and believe that our recent grant opportunity with C&NN was a huge deciding factor for the school boards decision to approve the program.

Photo credits: Nicole Hanlin


Monica Lopez Magee, Director, Community Leadership Development

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Community Engagement: A Process Not a Finish

December 19, 2017 | Children & Nature Network |

The agenda was set, food ordered, supplies on hand and the expansive invite list confirmed. Yet, in the days and hours leading up to the Natural Leaders Community Blitz (a day of leadership development, service, and sharing resources), I was experiencing a mix of enthusiasm and anxiousness. Would young leaders and community representatives really opt to spend their Saturday with us?

But there was no cause for concern. Twin Cities Natural Leaders is a model of community engagement. It is community-driven; it values participatory thinking; encompasses shared goals; minimizes barriers through incentives, transportation and more; and consists of multiple points of connection. The initiative was just two years old but had already made a deep investment in the community. The first start of community connection was in December of 2015 when C&NN hosted multiple focus groups, which spurred the 2017 Twin Cities Legacy Camp, a multi-day intensive training for young leaders. Partner calls, one-on-one meetings, emails and more calls and more emails led up to the Legacy Camp which followed it.

Supported in part by C&NN pass-through funds, partner organizations including Urban Roots, Sun Ray Library, BOLD & GOLD, Saint Parks & Recreation and Wilderness Inquiry offered to host Natural Leaders as interns. Through the internships, Natural Leaders assumed such roles as Family Nature Club sub-leader, nature-smart communications assistance, volunteer coordinator, and after school and library support with a focus on integrating nature exploration into activities.

Natural Leader alum played key roles in the service as well. Natural Leader Nyalet served as a junior counselor for the Saint Paul’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature inaugural, week-long day camp. Maria facilitated a discussion among peers on the impact of diversity initiatives and how to make racial equity an essential lens in outdoor programming.  And Pheng and Brandon organized volunteer workdays to install a rain garden at their local high school and participated in National Public Lands Day.

Thirty minutes before the Community Blitz was scheduled to begin, I paced the path from the Dodge Nature Center parking lot to the front door wondering if I had remembered to include my phone number on the latest email. Will people find the place?  Will they show up? Yeah, it’s a beautiful day. Then, oh no!  It’s a beautiful day —which will lure people away!  I don’t consider myself an anxious person, but the unpredictability of open-ended community-driven engagement seemed to amplify my anxiety meter.

But soon, the first car pulled up. Then the second.  And on and on. The Saint Paul and Minneapolis communities proved, yet again, they were all in.  Natural Leader Wayne had done a fantastic job of spreading the word at the YMCA Midway, recruiting youth to share in the experience. In total, thirty people representing 15 young leaders and 13 organizations showed up on a Saturday for a day of leadership development, learning and service. Participants came from grassroots organizations and local chapters of national agencies representing varying interests: youth-focused, conservation, environmental education, and outdoor recreation.

Throughout the day, we did everything from developing our own personal narratives to observing bees buzzing around insulated hives, meeting domestic animals in the barn, and volunteering for a service project which involved removing invasive buckthorn to preserve the natural habitat at Dodge Nature Center. I was surprised to learn that 28 of these local participants were visiting the Nature Center for the first time. But I was inspired to see growing leaders —and growing awareness of local nature access!

Our shared mission manifested into a treasure box of resources: nature-facing internships; arranging meeting spaces; coordination of service projects; and ideas for recruiting more youth to help us provide opportunities for youth to put their leadership skills and passion to work, strengthen the local network, and prepare for the 2018 Twin Cities Legacy Camp. Beyond our Natural Leaders training and young leader development, we are seeing a community come together to sustain the effort.

In the end, I realize that my worry over every detail to ensure a “perfect” experience was for not. The events, meetings and opportunities weren’t actually mine to own. The initiative belonged to the Natural Leaders and the community. As Timothy Turner, Sun Ray Library librarian and Young Mentors Group articulated so well, “This [Legacy Camp] isn’t something that was done to us. This is something we are developing. It’s ours. I see more leaders developing out of this. Thanks for seeing us!”

And so, together,  we will all carry the momentum forward as we prepare for the 2018 Twin Cities Legacy Camp. May the Natural Leaders’ force be with you and in your community.

 


Monica Lopez Magee, Director, Community Leadership Development

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Family Nature Club Impact Stories: East Harlem Nature Engagement Through Fishing

December 11, 2017 | Children & Nature Network |

Ashely Wills and Ronnie chop up the bunker at the East River Footbridge during our September 24th, 2016 club event.

Earlier this year, C&NN awarded 27 Family Nature Club (FNC) stipends to volunteer clubs, nonprofit organizations, government departments and at zoos and aquariums nationally and in two countries outside of the United States. Most of the award recipients are focused on engaging families from low-income areas and diverse communities.

Along with the funding, grant recipients were given access to a series of C&NN-produced interactive, web-based trainings designed to outfit FNC leaders with informal EE and nature-play facilitation skills, so they could effectively facilitate whole-family engagement, plan for risky play, and lead the new Nature Quest curriculum. C&NN also provided Nature Adventure Backpacks and shared timely, scientific research and monthly “in-nature” tips.

We were delighted to hear that all 15 of the grassroots recipients described the funding and resources as critical to reducing barriers for families to connect to nature. Their feedback underscored the value of FNCs as a powerful model for connecting people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities through the shared wonder and enjoyment of nature.


Using the funding and the resources,  these FNCs were able to engage 455 families, resulting in 1,396 children and adults spending 5,693 total hours in nature.

We recently checked in with several grant recipients to learn how they were using the funding on the ground. We’re pleased to share highlights from the FNC grant recipients on this blog space. Our first “From the Field” dispatch is an interview with Roger Hernandez, a FNC Leader with the East Harlem El Barrio Fishing Club, a family volunteer organization who fish the area within East Harlem, New York City. 

What is the East Harlem El Barrio Fishing Club?

RH: The East Harlem El Barrio Fishing Club is a family volunteer organization who fish the area within Spanish Harlem, NYC. This includes the East River coastline along the FDR Drive Esplanade and the Meer Central Park lake.  We provide light maintenance, beautification and safety vigilance along the East River coastline from 96th Street to 120th Street. We also provide environmental education and wildlife identification programming to the community.

Club President Ronald Hernandez and Mr. Phil sort out the fresh bait at Ideal Pet Shop for the FREE BAIT GIVE AWAY!

How do you engage your local community?

RH: We are fortunate to live in an urban setting with riverfront access to an island, along with lake access in NYC’s Central Park’s Northern section. As such, we have tailored family activities that reach out and engage our community residents with a way to enjoy their natural setting in a challenging way. Fishing has been a great family activity to promote to our community. In the past, we provided free bait workshops along the East River offering a variety of local baits to the East River Fishing enthusiasts free of charge. The events (co-sponsored by the Friends of The Esplanade) were well received, with over 60 anglers receiving free bait kits of bunker, clams and worms. The greatest thing about the bait workshops is that they encourage community participants to fish in a challenging environment free of cost. This allows low-income families to experience the thrill of fishing, enjoying the open air.

What is your approach to facilitating children and family connections to nature?

RH: We are fortunate to center our river activities near the East 103rd Street footbridge to Randall’s Island which provides us an environment to explore different natural habitats in an urban setting that are visited by migrating fish and wildlife. Randall’s Island is located at the confluence of the Long Island, the East River and the Harlem River, which provides a rich flux of varying fish populations, crabs and oysters along with waterfowl and migrating birds within a challenging environment. We provide a community linkage with the Randall’s Island Alliance and The Friends of the Esplanade who are dedicated to the preservation of this natural environment. The East Harlem El Barrio Fishing Club also provides an important constituent user viewpoint to the East River Task Force, which is currently reviewing various legislative proposals to provide greater access to the riverfront.

How did you use the FNC funding?

RH: Our current capacity is 20 family members due to our very limited funding. Our goal for the funding was to increase our visibility and programming partnership

Our new focus on nature exploration and service has led our Club to form a partnership with the East Side Gardening Association. Together we have completed two beautification projects at the 96th Street entry oval and along the East River Esplanade. Walking the area it feels much more welcoming. We are also experiencing an increase in participation as visitors become aware of our work in the area.

Through this funding, we expanded our monthly activities to include nature exploration, emphasis on the important relationship between the community’s natural resources, stewardship of the area and advocacy.

Can you share any experiences on how the funding has impacted your organization or the community?

RH: During our recent activities, I had a unique experience with one of the participating families who lives in public housing close to the East River. Over the years, members of the family had expressed a desire to learn how to fish and interact with local anglers visiting the Esplanade. I invited the family to a daylong workshop about fishing equipment and techniques, various baits (clams, crab, shrimp, worms, bunkers, lures, etc), emphasizing environmentally-responsible, safe and clean practices. Now, their 14-year-old daughter loves fishing and is not afraid to cut up bait.

It is remarkable to see how families come to enjoy fishing as a way to spend time together appreciating the environment that surrounds them.

Learn more about Family Nature Clubs or download the Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit here.

 


Amanda Merck, MPH, Research Area Specialist, Salud America!, UT Health San Antonio


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Health Equity Policy Roundtable Amps up Shared Use

December 5, 2017 | Children & Nature Network |

Natural elements, like limestone spiral climbing and balancing walls and native plants, at Concepcion Park in San Antonio via Google Map

While we know that children’s exposure to nature is linked to improved health and academic performance, many children do not have access to nature. Latino kids and families are one group that does not always have safe green places to walk or play where they live. This lack of access can lead to disparities in obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression.  At Salud America!, a national Latino health-focused organization, we create culturally relevant and research-based stories, videos, and tools to inspire people to start and support healthy policy, systems, and environmental changes so that Latino children and families can equitably live, learn, work, and play.

In July 2017, I had an incredible opportunity, on behalf of Salud America!, to attend the Health Equity Policy Roundtable to Advance Green Schoolyards with the Children & Nature Network and the National League of Cities. This roundtable changed the way that our organization is thinking about some aspects of our work.

To address some of the inequities that exist, Salud America! has been advocating for shared use agreements. Shared use agreements are one of the evidence-based healthy changes we encourage in disadvantaged schools or communities to improve Latino health.

Sadly, when the school day ends, many schools lock their playgrounds, fields, tracks, trails, and pools. Shared use agreements, also known as joint or open use, can be formal or informal agreements to broaden access to existing school and community facilities. The first step is often an open use agreement, where schools stop locking their facilities and open them for public use during the evening, on weekends and over the summer.

In San Antonio, there is a collaborative effort to improve school grounds and open them to the public. Unique to this shared use success story is the installation of large ornate gates to demonstrate both literally and figuratively that the schoolyard is open to the public. Although shared use agreements are beneficial for schools and communities across the country, we may have scaled down the concept too much, to the exclusion of nature and green schoolyards in its understanding.  

Communities should focus more on school grounds as a vital community asset for two key reasons:

  1. We the taxpayers pay for schools, through property taxes at the local level; sales and income taxes at the state level; and income, payroll, and corporate income taxes at the federal level.
  2. With nearly 100,000 operating public elementary and secondary schools, schools are often one of the largest landowners in cities and suburban areas.

Green Schoolyards and Shared Use

Where schools are located and how school grounds are designed can drastically impact physical and mental health, academic performance, pedestrian safety, stormwater management, air quality, the heat index, and community resiliency. Nature has the power to make us happier, healthier, and smarter, with the greatest impact seen in populations with the least access. Schools are in a unique position to serve those with the least access by acting as a connector to nature, both during as well as after school, on weekends, and over the summer.

Improving school grounds and opening them to the public is about so much more than beautification and creating space. There is incredible power in activating often-isolated school departments, community members, and community partners to be part of the process.

Salud America! doesn’t want to just inspire schools to open their asphalt-laden schoolyards. We hope to set the bar higher– to inspire schools to consider more coordinated solutions to improve their schoolyards in the name of academic performance, health, walkability, livability, sustainability, resiliency and civic engagement, particularly in underserved areas. I am particularly motivated by the partnership between Chicago schools and the city’s two water agencies.

Advancing Green Schoolyards

Green schoolyards are a coordinated approach to improve schoolyards and provide three multifaceted community benefits:

  1. Outdoor classrooms and play areas during the school day.
  2. Public spaces for kids and families to play after school, on weekends, and over the summer.
  3. Ecosystem services to address excess stormwater, heat islands and poor air quality.

Outdoor Classroom at Hidden Forest Elementary School in San Antonio, TX

Green schoolyards add more than just grass, which is an important distinction to make, especially here in Texas. Green schoolyard elements include:

  • diverse terrain
  • natural features such as flowers, trees, edible plants, logs, sticks, boulders, rocks, sand and water
  • gardens that support both wildlife and food growing
  • natural play structures with loose parts and climbing structures
  • paths and trails
  • gathering places and outdoor classrooms
  • shade trees
  • solar and other energy sources
  • rainwater catchment
  • mechanisms to reduce stormwater runoff

The attendees of the Health Equity Policy Roundtable to Advance Green Schoolyards worked together to create a pathway to scalable methods to transform depressing school grounds into green schoolyards, with a focus on areas that have been historically neglected. The opportunity is there, lying dormant under the many siloed departments and agencies within your school and community.

 


 


CJ Goulding is the Lead Organizer for the Natural Leaders Network and Legacy Camps.


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Creating Bridges to the Outdoors

November 16, 2017 | Children & Nature Network |

Photo by Tony Teske

I am an African American “Natural Leader,” which means I lead others in connecting to the outdoors. While there are many people of color working in the environmental movement, black and brown faces unfortunately aren’t seen as much as they should be in leadership roles, or simply enjoying our public lands. I stand with a group of diverse Natural Leaders around the country who are working to change that.

In the few years that I have been involved in connecting people with outdoor spaces, there have been numerous occasions where I am the only person of color in the program, or the only African American leader. Growing up, there were very few people from my neighborhood traveling, hiking, canoeing or spending time outdoors in these ways unless it was a part of a structured program.

Today, I lead by being true to myself and enjoying the outdoors without subtracting any piece of my culture or the community I come from. So as I #OptOutside, on my feet will be Jordan Bred 11s, the only pair of Michael Jordan’s brand of sneakers I have ever owned. Jordans are a status symbol in the neighborhood I grew up in, a memento of importance and significance.

In my role with the Children & Nature Network, I strive to train and support young, diverse Natural Leaders who work to connect their communities to the outdoors. They serve as a bridge to the natural world for people who face barriers of access and awareness or haven’t traditionally spent time outdoors in typical outdoor recreation. Our Natural Leaders are expanding opportunities for children and families to opt outside so that they can experience the many benefits of nature.

In August of 2016, I was honored to work with my Children & Nature Network colleagues, REI, Islandwood and Sierra Club to launch Fresh Tracks: Leadership Expeditions, a 16-day cultural exchange inspired by the Obama Administration’s commitment to connecting more young Americans to nature. Fresh Tracks brought together emerging leaders from Los Angeles, California, and all across Alaska (as far north as the Arctic Circle), to experience each other’s cultures and communities and the power of exploring the outdoors. Watch “Fresh Tracks: The Video” to learn more.

Study after study confirms the value of an outdoor life. REI’s #OptOutside campaign, now in its third year, reminds us to reconnect to the outdoors, to a natural world that allows us space to connect to ourselves, to other people, and to the bigger mysteries of life. It’s about making getting outside a habit and a lifestyle.

Opt means “to make a choice from a range of possibilities.” With that in mind, and thinking about the culture I grew up in, I can appreciate that I have the liberty to choose my adventure, a choice that we can agree should be available to everyone. I am also aware that there are obstacles that limit the possibilities available for people to easily make the same choice to spend time outside.

I am working to make that choice easier for others, by working with programs to provide opportunities for outdoor exploration to those for whom that “range of possibilities” may not have existed.

My choice to #OptOutside while staying true to my culture and who I am makes me a bridge and an example of how someone can stay connected to their community and culture while taking steps into the outdoors. And it makes a difference. At the beginning of Fresh Tracks, Cameron Williamson-Martin stepped off of the plane and into the forest of Bainbridge Island, Washington, wearing his own pair of Jordans. Even after the trip has ended, we are working together to figure out how he can continue that connection and bring others into the outdoors with him. The instant connection from our similar footwear and life experience combined with the opportunity to explore the outdoors validates the doors REI is opening through the #OptOutside campaign and by supporting programs like these.

My Jordans are now falling apart, worn from adventures in places like the Grand Tetons and the Grand Canyon, hiking through the topography of Los Angeles and Arctic Village. This goes directly against how people “should” wear them and what people “should” wear outdoors. But I wear them wherever I go to remind me of the fact that though there are two worlds, I am a bridge. We can all use our influence and reach to create similar opportunities for others.

This fall, as #OptOutside gets into full swing and as Natural Leaders across the country connect their communities to the outdoors, I am affirmed of my commitment to that mission and confirmed in my approach when I see another young leader like Cameron follow the footprints of my Bred 11s into the woods.

To learn more about what Natural Leaders will be doing across the country to #OptOutside, follow Natural Leaders on Facebook. Also follow the Children & Nature Network for ideas for connecting to nature on #OptOutside day and all year long.

 


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


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Worldwide Leaders Inspired by Berlin’s Example of Green School Grounds

October 16, 2017 | Children & Nature Network |

In early September I traveled to Berlin, Germany to attend the International School Grounds Alliance conference on schoolyard diversity, as an attendee and a Leadership Council member. The International School Grounds Alliance is a global network of organizations and professionals working to enrich children’s learning and play by improving the way school grounds are designed and used. The three-day conference was an incredible learning experience of presentations, tours and workshops with participants from around the world, sharing ideas and examples of sustainable schoolyards and open kindergarten areas with a focus on architecture, ecology and pedagogy.

Visiting schoolyards across Berlin was a highlight. I was inspired by the impact of the schoolyard renovations that are unique to the physical space, ethics, and policies of the city. Grun Macht Schule (a lead organizer for the conference) has been supporting the development of green schoolyards across Berlin for over 25 years, providing great space for recess, learning and after-school hours engagement for its young people. Below are a few photos that give a good sense of the schoolyards in Berlin that we visited along the tour.

Student-Designed Playground Equipment at Primary School An der Bak

The greening of some of Geothe Secondary School, which used to be all asphalt

Schweizerhof Water Play Feature

While the schoolyards were inspiring, I was most struck by the casual conversations I had with other conference goers. The conference drew 120 representatives representing  22 countries, including India, Australia, Finland, Chile and Estonia. Through these conversations, I noticed common, worldwide challenges across all schoolyard regardless of size, type and geography.

I realized that the U.S. is not the only place facing the challenge of schoolyards devoid of nature.

This is the norm around the world. The schoolyards may be sand, clay, asphalt or concrete, and include play structures or sports fields, but there isn’t much diversity for learning and playing on schoolyards as a whole.

Finnish pupils design, engineer and build a BMX track and spreading sand for beach volleyball court. Most green schoolyards in Finland are focused on increasing physical activity.

The International School Grounds Alliance, globally, and the Children & Nature Network, nationally, are trying to change this by raising awareness, affecting plans and policies, and supporting partnerships on the ground to implement green schoolyards. We know that green schoolyards provide so many health and wellness, learning, environmental and community benefits. Just earlier this year, The Salzburg Statement on the Child in the City Health, Parks and Play includes greening of schoolyards as a key recommended action.

Citywide, countywide and districtwide,  schoolyard greening is a slow journey towards an amazing goal. Berlin is an inspiring example of this journey. Yet, even after 25 years, some of Berlin’s schoolyards have not been transformed. This provides both comfort and a sense of perspective of the work that lies ahead of us to make the change that we seek in the world. We know that our children and communities deserve better.

Learn more about the Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities initiative here.

Photo(s) credit: Photos 1-4, Jaime Zaplatosch; Photo 5, Regionförvaltningsverket i Södra-Finland Ansvarsområdet för undervisnings- och kulturverksamhet

 


Kimberly Pikok is a student at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks studying Wildlife Biology & Conservation. Kimberly hopes to pursue a career helping rural Alaska communities with land and animal rights to support their traditional way of life. She is a former Arctic Youth Ambassador.


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Sharing Stories Across Cultures: My Fresh Tracks Journey

October 11, 2017 | Children & Nature Network |

Throughout high school, I was involved in several programs and participated in local events that put me in leadership roles in my community. Despite my involvement in those programs and the opportunities they offered, I never thought that they pushed me hard enough. At one point, I even thought that I might be participating just for the travel. After many leadership programs, I began to realize that I had the potential to be a leader. However, I was never given the opportunity to discover if I had leadership skills.

When I first heard about the Fresh Tracks program, I was a senior in high school getting ready to graduate.  Even though I was busy applying for scholarships and jobs, I found time to look into Fresh Tracks and consider whether I should apply. Fresh Tracks seemed different than previous leadership programs. It had a cultural understanding and exchange component– and that hooked me because I love learning about different cultures. Once I saw that there was travel to Los Angeles and Arctic Village, I decided to apply. Los Angeles was a place I have only seen in movies and TV shows. While Arctic Village was a place I learned about just a year before I started my senior year of high school at the National Conservation Training Center.

And so, a few months later, I was admitted to the program. I can honestly say that applying for Fresh Tracks was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Since the beginning of high school, I was unsure about my academic direction; unclear which job and career I wanted to pursue.

Thanks to Fresh Tracks, the Natural Leaders Network, and the amazing funders, partners, participants, and presenters of the program, I feel like I have found my way.

The Fresh Tracks family provides support and opportunities for participants and trainers to strengthen our skills as leaders. With Fresh Tracks, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C.  to grow as a public speaker while sharing my experiences in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Fresh Tracks also took me to West Virginia so I could share my skills and knowledge with other leaders. The Natural Leaders and Fresh Tracks Trainer Summit took place this summer at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. NCTC is one of my favorite places in the world–it’s where I fell in love with nature during a visit two years ago. I never thought I would make it back out there. But exactly two years later, here I was.  Even better, it was around the time that the Native Youth Congress was happening.

Sharing at the Natural Leaders and Fresh Tracks Trainer Summit.

When you’re a participant at a camp, congress, or even a conference, you rarely think about what is happening behind-the-scenes–what it takes to run those kinds of events. Fresh Tracks gave me the opportunity to experience that for myself. Acting as a junior trainer for the summit was heartwarming, but also a little overwhelming. Realizing that I was in the participant’s shoes at one point made me nervous, but excited to think that their lives might be changed as a result of Fresh Tracks– just like mine was. This experience helped me understand why counselors enjoy being counselors, or why trainers keep training. They see development, talents, and ideas light up in the participants. Witnessing all of that kept me going for the entire week.

The summit was not just a leadership training, but was also a cultural exchange. We hosted storytelling sessions and a Culture Share where after each story, the energy and the connections in the room were heavily felt. The participants developed an understanding of the Native American lifestyle, life in the ghetto, life in the black communities, life in Hispanic culture, life in the Arctic, and the struggle of losing cultural identity. Sharing and telling these stories defeated stereotypes.  Sessions like these brought us together as one person and one voice. And they can be what brings the whole country together.

Participants at the Natural Leaders and Fresh Tracks Trainer Summit having fun.

Outside of the culture shares, the participants were asked to develop action plans to implement in their communities. “My biggest thing that I can give you is to learn from one another and bring it back to communities. When you go to your home community, connect with something real,” said Mr. Conan Harris from My Brother’s Keeper Boston.

A participant representing Generation Indigenous stated, “We are not leaders if we don’t work from the people, for the people, and with the people.”  

Everyone showed their true talents and passion during this session. Seeing this type of love, unity, and friendship within a diverse group of people left me speechless, but grateful that I was able to witness this power amongst youth from all over the nation.

The Natural Leaders and Fresh Tracks Trainer Summit was so much more than a summit. Some participants I spoke to said it was a distraction and an escape from our struggles in life. But the summit also provided tools to bring back to our communities to tackle those challenges and rise up. The summit was not just participants and trainers, but a family of different backgrounds, stories, and experiences. The summit was family for those who forgot what having a family felt like. Fresh Tracks and the Natural Leaders Network created this unity, bringing this group together, and made each individual feel whole again.

I am proud to have been a part of the original Fresh Tracks trip, and excited to have been a junior trainer this summer at the Trainers Summit. My Fresh Tracks Journey continues this Fall at the Aspen Institute Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund (OYIF) Convening, where I will represent my Fresh Tracks peers and speak about organizing in Native communities, the benefits of cross-cultural engagement, and sustainable system change with leaders including:  Aja Brown, Mayor of Compton; Arnold Chandler, Forward Change Consulting; Juan Martinez, Fresh Tracks;  Monica Nuvamsa, Executive Director, The Hopi Foundation; Michael Smith, Strategic Advisor, The Obama Foundation (Moderator); and Erik Stegman, Center for Native American Youth (Moderator).

Learn more about Fresh Tracks and the Natural Leaders Network here.

Photo(s) credit: CJ Goulding.

 


Sarah Milligan Toffler, Executive Director, Children & Nature Network


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National Public Lands Day: An Opportunity to Connect Kids to Nature

September 27, 2017 | Children & Nature Network |

A growing body of evidence tells us that access to nature is critical for children’s healthy development. Regular time spent outdoors in natural places can have a positive impact on our children’s health — both physically and mentally. Studies indicate that young people who have access to parks and outdoor areas are more active, enjoy healthier body weights and have increased self-esteem and confidence — as well as enhanced academic performance and connections to their communities. Outdoor experiences encourage imagination, creativity, problem-solving and positive social relationships.

In other words, nature has the power to make kids healthier, happier and smarter.

At the Children & Nature Network, we work to increase equitable access to nature for children.

Volunteers at a service project at C&NN’s 2016 Conference

In most cases, our national networks of grassroots leaders and activists rely on public lands to provide opportunities for kids to experience the benefits of the natural world. From local parks, trails and schoolyards to the incredible shared heritage of our national parks, accessible public lands are essential to connecting kids and communities to the great outdoors.

But as much as our kids and communities need nature, we know that natural places need us as well.

Saturday, September 30 is National Public Lands Day, our nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort on behalf of public lands, hosted annually by the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) and sponsored by Toyota, along with seven federal land management agencies and state and local partners.

Now in its 24th year, this day of service offers a chance for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with public lands of all kinds, from urban bike paths to national forests. Last year, more than 200,000 people joined volunteer efforts, contributing more than $18 million in in-kind service to public lands.

C&NN 2016 conference participants at a service project at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge

On Saturday, volunteers from coast to coast will celebrate and take care of the outdoor places they love. Please join in. Volunteer opportunities in your community can be found at neefusa.org, ranging from planting trees to park clean-ups and trail repairs, to removing invasive species and improving wildlife habitat.

One of the great features of National Public Lands Day is its ability to bring diverse people together around a common interest: protecting treasured natural places and sharing the benefits they offer. It’s a great way to give back to the public lands that give so much to our children, families and communities. And sharing this day with the kids in your life will help them build lifelong connections to the outdoors and inspire new generations of environmental stewardship.

Our co-founder and author of the seminal book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv has said: “The future will belong to the nature-smart.” Let’s ensure our children, especially those living in urban areas, have a bright, nature-filled future by caring for the public lands that can provide meaningful outdoor experiences for us all.

 


Vera Feeny | Associate for the Connecting Children to Nature and Early Childhood Success programs in the NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.


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Eleven Cities Join Cities Connecting Children to Nature Initiative

 

April 4, 2018 | Children & Nature Network |

Regular access to nature brings multiple benefits to children, including improved mental and physical health and increased opportunities for social and emotional learning.

With these benefits in mind, Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN), a joint initiative of the National League of Cities and Children & Nature Network, welcomes 11 new cities to mobilize municipal efforts that increase equitable access to nature for all residents.

Six cities will receive intensive technical assistance and $75,000 in planning and implementation grants:

  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Houston, Texas
  • Gary, Indiana
  • San Antonio, Texas
  • St. Louis, Missouri

Five cities will join the cohort for peer-learning opportunities, including Albuquerque, New Mexico, Cincinnati, Ohio, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Rochester, New York, and Seattle, Washington.

Picture1.png

Each city expressed strong mayoral commitment and dedicated capacity for connecting children to the proven benefits of nature. CCCN city teams will enlist cross-sector agencies and partners to prioritize increasing equitable access for low-income residents and people of color.

“In the wake of Hurricane Harvey,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston, Texas, “as Houston rebuilds our neighborhoods, schools, and infrastructure more resiliently, we will take the opportunity to utilize CCCN assistance to assess gaps, analyze equity, and map assets throughout our City, to improve plans and policies that will increase access to nature for all children as part of their everyday lives.”

This new cohort will build on strategies that gained momentum among seven pilot cities in 2015-17, such as shared-use green schoolyards, early childhood nature play spaces, NatureSmart Libraries and green career pathways, and explore new areas of potential. A partner initiative, the 10-Minute Walk to a Park Campaign, will also provide tools for the new cohort to use.

CCCN technical assistance helps participating cities collect data to analyze local assets and opportunities, plan and implement tailored strategies that address community needs, and maximize potential for meaningful nature connections in residents’ daily lives. The CCCN Resource Hub provides resources and tools, including a Municipal Action Guide and Metrics Toolkit, for cities and their partners as they start to connect children to nature, more equitably

 

The Children & Nature Network (C&NN) believes that nature makes children healthier, happier and smarter. C&NN is a US-based 501c3 nonprofit organization working to increase equitable access to nature for children, families and communities so that children—and natural places—can thrive. It does this by investing in leadership and communities through sharing evidence-based resources, scaling innovative solutions, and driving policy change.

The Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) initiative, a partnership between the National League of Cities and Children & Nature Network generously supported by The JPB Foundation, began in 2014 and provides technical assistance, training, extensive resources and documentation, and peer learning opportunities to increase equitable access to nature’s many benefits for all residents.

 


Jarrett Jones is a CityYear Chicago alumni and National Council Of Young Leaders council member.


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A Young Leader’s Story: Finding Purpose & Peace through Nature

August 30, 2017 | Children & Nature Network |

My name is Jarrett Jones and I would first like to thank you all for taking the time to read my story about one of my first real encounters with nature. I’m a 25-year-old black man from Chicago. Growing up on Chicago’s Southside, I can’t say I was ever truly exposed to ‘nature.’ Of course, as a kid, I visited neighborhood parks and experienced the resident wildlife and nature there. But that was really the extent of it.

My understanding of nature as a kid mainly came from Chicago’s Marquette Park. Marquette had a playground, soccer fields, tennis and basketball courts. It also had a lagoon, though I was never really a fan of the types of insects I found there. For some reason, lightning bugs and the way they naturally illuminated the darkness of the night fascinated me. To me, this was nature.

Once I turned twelve, things quickly changed for me. Almost a teen, I became more aware of the social norms prevalent in my community. Those norms included gangs, violence, drugs, etc.  These norms took control of my life over the next seven years, drawing me away from what I knew as nature…until I reached a breaking point. When I was 19 years old, I made the decision to no longer accept the negative social norms that had taken over my life. Nor would I accept the negative stigmas placed upon me and other young black men. Since that decision, I have gone on to work for three different law firms, one multi-billion-dollar corporation and one international educational non-profit. I am the only child of our three-child family who has obtained a high school diploma.

National Council of Young Leaders banner, painted by council member Francisco Garcia

But one of my proudest accomplishments is my work with the National Council of Young Leaders. Our main focus is to engage the 5.5 million opportunity youth who are disconnected from education or work. We have six recommendations that we believe will eradicate this issue:

  • expand effective comprehensive programs
  • expand national service
  • expand private internships
  • increase all forms of mentoring
  • protect and expand pathways to higher education
  • support diversion and re-entry programs in the justice system

My year with the council has involved traveling to conferences, summits, and events to speak about opportunity youth. We collaborate and strategize with organizations like Starbucks that participate in “The 100,000 Opportunities Initiative,” the country’s largest employer-led coalition committed to creating pathways to meaningful employment for young people. We speak with high-level executives about ways their companies can provide opportunities for young people who face unique challenges, but possess a source of tremendous talent and potential that goes untapped. While traveling and speaking with key stakeholders, we always make time to connect with the youth that we are representing. In fact, one of the most powerful aspects of our work is the events we host or attend with local youth organizations to facilitate trainings on how to engage political systems, power and responsibility when using voice and telling personal narratives. 

The Natural Leaders and Fresh Tracks Trainer Summit

Earlier this summer, I received an invitation to attend the Natural Leaders and Fresh Tracks Trainer Summit. I jumped at the opportunity to be of service and was anxious to learn from others. The first day of the camp, while getting to know everyone, I quickly noticed that I was one of the oldest participants attending. At first, it made me question my decision about coming to the camp. I was skeptical that some of the other younger leaders could teach me as much as I could teach them. But boy was I wrong.

The Natural Leaders Network provided us with great trainers and trainings that ranged from creating and telling your personal narratives, to developing action plans for community organizations to bring back to our own communities. Although the training was great, the conversations and personal connections were the most valuable. I met people from Alaska, Hong Kong, and multiple rural areas. This may not seem like a big deal to some people, but keep in mind that I never really left Chicago until this year. For me, it was an eye-opening experience to hear the participants’ different cultural norms and experiences. I was embarrassed about how little I knew about indigenous people after talking to a couple of the young leaders from different tribes across the nation. They told me about the hardships and injustices that they continue to face. We talked about their cultural beliefs and traditions and how nature is an integral part of that. I left many of these conversations throughout the duration of the camp with what I believe will be a lifetime of knowledge. With the realization that we share similar hardships, I feel the urge to do more and to learn more.

Jarrett on the water with fellow leader, Nizhooni

The summit was transformative for me on so many levels. But it was a personal experience with nature that left the greatest impression on me. A leader from Denver challenged me to take on one my biggest fears during a planned kayaking trip: large bodies of water. From early childhood to my late teens I have had bad experiences when it comes to water-related activities. Let’s just say that after being saved three times and resuscitated twice by a lifeguard, I have a respectable fear of large bodies of water. This leader didn’t care much about that. During the bus ride to the Potomac River, she encouraged me to face my fears. Naturally, after she initiated the challenge, I said “absolutely not” in my head. I had almost died twice. Why give death another chance? When we arrived at the river, she continued to push and challenge me. At that point, I had to put on a brave face and just do it. I was beyond scared for the first five minutes because I couldn’t think about anything except my past near-death experiences. For reasons I can’t quite explain, I suddenly became present in the moment. I focused on the sunlight hitting my skin, the soft breeze, and what seemed like an endless number of trees. At that very moment, I was at peace.

I can honestly say I haven’t been at that level of peace in an extremely long time, if ever. Being a 6’3” young black man from Chicago, I don’t often have the luxury of being at peace. I could be navigating neighborhoods trying not to be the next victim of gun violence, working hard to prove I’m just as smart, capable, and competent as my white counterparts, or just making sure I’m not doing anything to warrant an encounter with the police. So, that moment, as well as the two hours we spent kayaking, was everything to me.

Group shot at the Natural Leaders and Fresh Tracks Trainer Summit

Looking back on the experience, without the encouragement of the young leader from Denver, I would have let something as minuscule as fear rob me of a life-changing experience. An experience that not only rejuvenated me with hope, inspiration, and peace but also allowed me to re-energize and continue to create a change for struggles my community faces at home in Chicago.

Learn more about Fresh Tracks and the Natural Leaders Network here.

Photo(s) credit: CJ Goulding.

 


Sarah Milligan Toffler, Executive Director, Children & Nature Network


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November 22, 2017| Children & Nature Network |
The well-being of children and the wild places we love are inextricably linked. And although it’s a relatively new area of study, a growing body of evidence indicates that nature has a powerful -- and positive -- effect on children’s healthy development. Hundreds of studies show that time spent in nature makes children happier, healthier and smarter.
But with today’s kids being less connected to nature than previous generations, children and the natural world need each other now more than ever.
Since our founding more than ten years ago, the Children & Nature Network has played a critical role in the movement to reconnect kids to the natural world. Our small but mighty team supports thousands of people working every day to ensure equitable access to nature for children, families and communities. Our work takes many forms. You may experience it through our Research Library and Digest, leadership writing and social media campaigns, conferences, trainings, toolkits, coalition-building efforts and on-the-ground projects, which are just some of the ways in which we work to increase nature connection. Together, with our supporters and partners, we’ve made steady progress over the years. We have a track record of success. And we believe we’ve reached an important point in our growth; one that calls us to further unite our voices and talents in order to create a world in which all children play, learn and grow with nature in their everyday lives. I am thrilled to announce our new membership model, developed through deep engagement with a diverse group of network leaders. This new approach is designed to harness the vitality and commitment of all who share our vision by asking them to become members of our network. Members will be more deeply connected to our broad coalition of practitioners, researchers, parents, educators, grassroots leaders and others, to grow the children and nature movement and raise the visibility and urgency of this issue with funders and policymakers. By becoming a member, you’ll help us build a more powerful base for connecting children to nature -- and help us better understand and meet your needs. A gift of any size makes you a member of the Children & Nature Network. Help us grow and strengthen the constituency for this critical issue -- and shape the future of the children and nature movement. Thank you for taking this important leap forward with us as an organization -- and as a social movement critical to children’s health and well-being.
Join before January 15, 2018 and you’ll be recognized as a Charter Member and a champion for children and nature. As a Charter Member, you’ll have increased opportunities to engage with leaders in our movement and gain valuable support and resources. You will join like-minded changemakers in creating a more powerful constituency for our issue -- and help shape the future of the children and nature movement.

 

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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