Green Investment – Youth Education

Green Investment is an occasional series about the positive impact of Ottawa County parks on the quality of life in West Michigan, presented by the Ottawa County Parks Foundation. 

Parks enrich children’s lives

“I found a lily pad! I see a whole bunch of lily pads!” called little Cora, wide-eyed with her long braids flipping as she hopped up and down. Cora and a dozen other preschoolers in Early Sprouts day camp peered from the bridge at Hemlock Crossing park, eagerly spotting water plants and animals they’d just heard about in a story book.

Over at the Nature Education Center, Nature Buds kindergarten and first grade campers were ready to explore. “Remember,” their leader said, “leave no trace. We’re going to respect the home of plants and animals. If you see an ant, we’re not going to stomp on it. If we see a flower, we’re not going to pick it; we’re going to leave it beautiful.”

“But you can bend over and sniff it,” chirped up little Caleb – already understanding how to engage with nature.

Out on the wetlands boardwalk, fourth and fifth-grade Young Discoverers campers studied tiny creatures their dip nets pulled up. “I love nature,” young Eva bubbled between spotting water insects in a bucket. “You get to discover things you usually wouldn’t see!”

Cora, Caleb and Eva are three of the tens of thousands of children involved in Ottawa County Parks programs, reaping rewards of the community investment in parks — and investment in children who connect with woods and plants, animals, and water.

“We hope to provide people a positive experience interacting with nature in order to initiate and encourage further exploration,” said Kristen Hintz, quoting from the nature education’s mission statement. From there, the aim is to “develop an emotional connection with nature that will lead to a wider perspective of their sense of place in the environment, and promote a greater understanding and attitude of responsible stewardship.”

Hintz, coordinator of interpretive services for Ottawa County Parks, said programs fall into two categories — public and private.

  • Public programs are summer camps, wildflower walks, wildlife encounters, owl prowls, full moon walks, and other events anyone can attend; last year more than 11,000 people took part in 263 of those programs.
  • Private programs are held for school classes or other groups, like seniors, scouts or church groups. They can be structured around a specific interest — a study of woodpeckers, or the geology at Grand Ravines, for instance. Or, for school classes, they are carefully designed to meet and enhance school curriculum standards. The 149 private programs last year involved more than 20,600 people.

School programs aim to provide an experience that can’t be duplicated in the classroom, but can be brought back to enhance classroom teaching. They include dune ecology at Rosy Mound, Kirk Park or North Ottawa Dune for fourth and fifth-graders; ecosystem studies at Grand Ravines looking at grasslands, upland forests and floodplain forests; and a living history program at Connor Bayou. Several preschools come an afternoon every other week, experiencing nature’s changes through the seasons. Along with lessons, the youngsters have free time to explore the forest.

Hintz recalled a young girl shaking a tree with red and orange leaves, asking, “It’s fall. Why aren’t they falling?”

“Nature is a great place for them to test their boundaries,” Hintz said. “Instead of being afraid of a buzzing bee, they learn to stand and watch the bee on a flower, they learn to appreciate the relationship of the bee and flower.”

Avril Wiers teaches natural resources and conservation at Careerline Tech Center and values the time her students spend in parks, getting “authentic experiences” working alongside park staff. Wiers also has worked as a naturalist guide with school groups and says students “absolutely light up” out in nature. “There are connections being made in their brains that don’t happen with textbook learning. All the bits and pieces of learning they’ve acquired, they come together to create a complete picture,” she said. Classes in parks get students used to exploring and asking questions. “It kind of breaks down the walls,” Wiers said. “People tend to think education has to happen within four walls, but actually, education can happen anywhere.”

Private sponsors have stepped forward to pay for some groups who couldn’t otherwise afford the transportation to the Nature Center. Anyone who wants to help children see Lake Michigan for the first time in their lives can make a donation to the Parks Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization.

A special thank you to volunteer Mike Lozon for the photographs.

This article was published in the Holland Sentinel on July 1, 2018