Strollers in Nature

Photo: Laurel Dodge

ORANGE COUNTY, NEW YORK — Two-year-old Penelope dips her net and pulls up a wriggling horde of American toad tadpoles. Seven-year-old Nathan, eyes sharpened by a year of experience peering into the pond’s depths, distinguishes the camouflaged water scorpion from the submerged twig on which it hides. Three-week-old Silvana feels the spring sun on her cheek as she is carried through the wetlands on her very first nature walk. Thirty-something Lorin finds inspiration for her pottery upon discovering stems supporting what appear to be tiny, polished wooden boxes: the seed pods of the seedbox plant.

With the support of the Orange County Audubon Society, Kathleen Diamond and I started the Nature Strollers Family Nature Study Club three years ago to give families in our community the opportunity to experience nature regularly. Now we lead between one and four nature walks per week. The trails we choose are without hazards such as exposed roots and drop-offs, and our hikes are rarely more than an hour in length, walked at a child’s pace. Child- and stroller-friendly trails enable parents to immerse their children in nature from birth onward. The club attracts families with a common interest in nature, so in addition to the family bonding that takes place, many new friendships have developed along the trails.

After joining us for a nature walk, many parents commented that they had driven by the entrance to the nature preserve for years without knowing it was open to the public. Others admitted that they would never take their kids out on the trail alone. It was clear that many of these families were not familiar with their local landscape and were nervous about exploring it on their own. Some of these parents were so concerned that they wouldn’t venture five minutes from their car without an escort. So began our campaign to familiarize families with the wealth of parks and preserves Orange County has to offer and to let them enjoy the safety in numbers Nature Strollers provides.

We advertise Nature Strollers nature walks in the local paper, distribute Nature Strollers brochures, and run programs at local nature centers. We also offer free nature walks to local clubs such as moms clubs and 4-H. Through these efforts and word of mouth, our membership has grown to over one hundred families. Between January and September 2008, our nature walks have attracted 450 participants. And to help spread the word, we have posted information on our website about how to start a family nature study club in your own community.

Our priority is to allow families to play and socialize on the trail and cede to them the excitement of discovery rather than structure the experience as a guided tour. No script can match the power of a personal encounter with wildlife. We teach parents and grandparents the skills to interpret nature for their children, such as how to use field guides and search for wildlife. We also point out that the benefits of nature study are not just for kids. One parent stood quietly watching diminutive, eastern forktail damselflies flit among the grasses. At my approach, she said, “I’ve never seen these before.” Then she shook her head. “I’ve never taken the time to see these before.”

In the face of climate change and energy challenges, what creative ways are you finding to forge healthy and durable lives and communities? Send submissions — five hundred words or fewer — to Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or via {encode=”” title=”e-mail”}. Submissions become property of Orion.


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