Free to muck about in the dirt and play

Conservation leadership for a new generation

By Kristen Wicker
Photo: “Students recognize the greater good of the earth and how much life can be related to the natural world” – Nate Arnett, director of Adventure Central

Brody was just 5 years old when he rescued a frog from a crew of schoolyard bullies, snatching the unsuspecting amphibian and hiding it from its would-be tormenters.

“Brody was so excited to tell us how he saved this frog,” said Joshua York, education supervisor for Five Rivers MetroParks. “Conservation action knows no age boundaries: Anybody can be a conservationist, and we shouldn’t overlook kids’ conservation power.”

This month, Five Rivers MetroParks launched a new program designed to teach kids about the natural world while they play and learn outdoors – and ultimately become conservation leaders among their peers and as adults. Called Conservation Kids, the program includes a series of age-appropriate programs that allows kids ages 3 to 13 to progress through four levels, starting with discovering nature and culminating in sharing all they’ve learned.

“We’re living in a really cool time when we’re all recognizing our place on Earth and that we do have impacts,” York said. “We now understand we need to work together to reduce those impacts, and kids are not always sure how to do that. Conservation Kids will empower kids to learn how they can help the planet and have conversations with other kids so they understand we’re part of the earth, and whatever we do to nature, we do to ourselves.”

It’s no secret today’s kids live in an environment more electronic than organic. The results are distressing – with increased rates of childhood obesity, ADHD and chronic illnesses as just a few of the concerns.

Yet the antidote is simple: outdoor play.

“Every child likes to play in nature,” York said. “But in lots of cases they just don’t know it yet.”

Complementing Conservation Kids are such efforts as Miami Valley Leave No Child Inside (MVLNCI), started locally in 2008 and part of a nationwide movement spearheaded by journalist Richard Louv to combat what he calls “nature-deficit disorder.” MVLNCI is one of several Ohio chapters and comprised of organizations with a common ground in their missions: to connect kids to nature, making them healthier, happier and smarter. The work of MVLNCI includes an annual summit, held each winter, and bus tour, to be held this summer, aimed at teaching adults how to help kids access nature in their backyards, schools, churches and elsewhere.

“Kids need to have frequent interaction with natural areas,” said Doug Horvath, resource interpreter for Five Rivers MetroParks, which has several parks equipped with nature play areas where kids can safely climb on trees, use sticks to build forts, play in water and more. “If kids have a chance to goof off in the woods and play in creeks, they are more likely to fall in love with nature, and it’s that love that makes them good conservationists later on.”

The benefits of time outdoors are well-known to those at Adventure Central, a youth education center at Wesleyan MetroPark that’s a partnership between Five Rivers MetroParks, The Ohio State University Extension and 4-H Youth Development.

“A big piece for us is creating opportunities to go outside in a safe and supervised environment,” said Nate Arnett, director of Adventure Central. “Most kids do not come here with experience or inclination to getting outside or playing in the natural world, but they walk away with a greater appreciation of nature and the environment.”

Indeed, focus groups show the thing kids enjoy most about their time at Adventure Central is time spent outdoors, especially at Wolf Creek. One student now attends UD and became a River Steward because she wanted to continue her experiences with the natural world and leadership development.

“Students recognize the greater good of the earth and how much life can be related to the natural world; we are constantly translating their experiences in nature with things going on with their lives,” Arnett said. “The biggest benefit we see from our students is a commitment to making sure their children will have this kind of experience, too. It’s something they honor and value.”

Reach DCP freelance writer Kristen Wicker at 

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