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Children need to connect with nature

UW-River Falls and Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College's early childhood education programs recently collaborated to host "That Moment of Wonder: Exploring Nature Inside Out and Outside In."

Parents, teachers and others concerned about early childhood issues attended the day-long conference held Sept. 26 at UW-RF. The event focused on the urgent need to reconnect children with nature both at home and in the educational setting.

"Our world today is changing in so many domains, and that includes our view of nature," said Gay Ward, associate professor of Early Childhood Education at UW-RF. "Parents are often hesitant to let their children interact with nature because they are afraid of negative consequences."

She explained that until the last few decades, children played freely outdoors building tree houses, making mud pies, digging in the dirt with Tonka trucks and climbing the small tree in the back yard. Over the years, the consensus about nature has dramatically changed because parents have the perception that it's simply too dangerous along with other fears.

Research shows that children today are facing many consequences resulting from little or no connection with nature. Some of the consequences include childhood obesity, lack of creativity and curiosity, loss of respect for nature and the living world and a lessened sense of community.

"Nature has so much to offer," Ward said, "And we need to meet head on with the problem of apathy toward the child/nature relationship."

She explained that it's essential for children to have real-life connections with nature now, when they are young, if they are going to be good stewards and take care of it when they're older.

"The idea of offering a conference focused on getting children back into nature is something we've been passionate about for many years," Ward said.

This year's conference focused on ways for parents and professionals to engage children with nature while teaching valuable skills in compassion, responsibility, problem-solving, creative thinking, math, science and art.

Participants started the day with a brisk morning walk and later welcomed guest speaker Pam Welisevich, a naturalist and animal care coordinator from the Dodge Nature Center in St. Paul.

Welisevich, who heads a nature-based child/parent program, explained that it's important to encourage families to see nature differently and feel comfortable interacting with the many life forms found in nature.

"The positive outcomes of encouraging children to get excited about getting their hands dirty and waking up their senses of sight, smell, hearing and touch are endless," Welisevich said. Some of the benefits include increased large and small motor skill development, reduction in fears to the outdoors, enhanced observation skills, and increased trust and compassion.

Ruth Forsgren, a staff naturalist from Beaver Creek Reserve in Fall Creek, also spoke at the event. Forsgren and others who help operate several programs at the reserve host 55,000 kids per year at their 400-acre nature center. Conference attendees learned how to identify various frog species and their unique "calls" along with ideas on how to engage children through story telling.

The conference also emphasized that nature can (and should) be integrated into our daily lives and classroom settings.

"By supporting natural investigations and using natural materials, parents, professionals and others can help instill a compassion for all life forms, an attitude of love and respect for others, and a commitment to teaching stewardship and gratitude in children, our future leaders," Ward said. "We can all learn how to see awe and wonder if we just open our hearts and lives to nature's gifts."