Thursday, September 24, 2009

Enjoy “Take a Child Outside Week”

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Enjoy “Take a Child Outside Week”

Today marks the beginning of “Take a Child Outside Week,” which is an initiative that’s being promoted around the country by environmental educators, including many in central Illinois. In the words of organizers, the aim of “Take a Child Outside Week” is “to help break down obstacles that keep children from discovering the natural world.”

For some thoughts on how parents and caregivers might mark this occasion, I checked in recently with Judy Miller, who is the Environmental Program Manager of the Urbana Park District. Miller is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable naturalist who is eager to share ideas about how people can connect with the natural world.

Her first suggestion was to check out the Urbana Park District’s “Wild about Parks” program, which is designed as a way to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Anita Purves Nature Center. In keeping with the spirit of the nature center, this program encourages people to get outside and explore.

Participants start by obtaining a booklet of clues, which can either be picked up at the nature center or downloaded from the web. The clues lead to small, weather-proof boxes that have been placed at various parks and facilities. Materials in the boxes, developed by the Park District’s environmental educators, provide information about the locations where they are found and about the plants and animals that occur there.

Participants keep a record of what they have found by marking their “Wild about Parks” booklet with the unique stamp kept in each box. A separate notebook that stays in the box enables participants to leave a mark or a message to the other people who find it.

Naturally before I suggested this activity to others I had to try it myself, so I popped over to Crystal Lake Park over lunch one day last week to locate the “Wild about Parks” box there. I won’t be giving too much away to say it contains a sheet telling about the ancient oaks found in the park and about cedar waxwings, distinctive birds that can be also observed there.

On my brief quest I was glad to confirm a point Judy Miller had made with regard to the “Wild about Parks” program, that it’s as much about the experiences one enjoys in the course of the search as it is about finding the box. Being at Crystal Lake Park that afternoon I saw things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, from warblers flitting about in the dense growth by the lake to small fish feeding on the insects drifting in the current of the Saline Branch.

The first set of clues for the “Wild about Parks Program” has been available for some time already, but the second set is being made available today to mark the beginning of “Take a Child Outside Week.”

Of course, celebrating “Take a Child Outside Week” need not include participating in any program at all, and when I spoke with Judy Miller she also had thoughts on enjoying the natural world at home. She pointed out that Fall is a great time of year to watch for creatures migrating on the wing, from dragonflies and monarch butterflies, which can be observed near ground level, to nighthawks and other birds that pass by high overhead. She also noted that there is no end of ways for children to enjoy trees in the fall, from collecting and comparing the acorns and nuts on the ground, to watching the leaves change colors and playing in them as they come down.

To discover these pleasures children need only be outside, so if you can, why not help them get there this week?