Eight-year-old Savanna Lee is discovering wonderful things about the world around her. “I learned that there’s a whole bunch of stuff under the water,” she said, “things like bugs and beetles, not just fish. It’s exciting!”
A student at Glendale Elementary School in Madison, Savanna is among many local children that benefit from an environmental education program offered by the Aldo Leopold Nature Center. Every Monday afternoon for ten weeks of the year Savanna and her classmates explore nearby forests, streams and marshlands. Called Nature Nuts, the course creates safe and enjoyable outdoor experiences for area youth whose families cannot afford traditional after-school activities.
Lead by naturalist Sue Denholm kids with few opportunities to encounter wildlife away from their urban homes can begin to establish a first-hand appreciation for the environment.
“ A lot of these kids don’t have a lot of contact with the natural world. Here I can be with them to calmly introduce them to what’s going on around them,” Denholm said. “They can ask questions, look for answers and not be afraid.”
Just off of Monona Drive, the Aldo Leopold Nature Center is tucked away in a peaceful wooded area. Not far from Downtown, the grounds include 97 acres of wild space that thrives with many varieties of insects, birds and small mammals. The Nature Nuts program allows children like Savanna to enjoy this tranquil setting despite a home life that is more accustomed to concrete buildings and paved city streets.
“I don’t get out to places like this much. My parents really don’t like nature,” Savannah said. “But I tell them what we do every Monday.”
Taking their experiences home is exactly what Denholm hopes to accomplish with Nature Nuts. “I want them to have that connection. Without that they won’t go much further,” she said. “But if they’re connected and they’re having fun they’ll be curious and then they’ll learn.”
Denholm said this type of experiential education goes beyond earth science and biology. She helps her students to create a journal with maps and drawings. They record the weather, animal sightings, the bugs they find and many other things they observe in their experience outdoors. She said it’s more of a writing project to help kids tell story about they’ve learned. “When you’re moving around outside everything is about science,” Denholm said. “Back when I taught in the classroom I always tried to teach social studies and writing all at the same time.”
By allowing children to become intimately acquainted with nature many believe they become well-rounded, more confident individuals. “The impact is that these kids are not only learning about the world, but they’re learning about themselves,” said Steve Goldberg, executive director of the CUNA Mutual Foundation. “Their teachers are reporting to us that their students have a greater interest in school. They’re exhibiting better performance and curiosity. That will benefit them in the future.”
The CUNA Mutual Foundation funds Nature Nuts to the tune of $3,000 a year. Goldenberg said the program has practical value in preparing young people with few economic advantages to excel in school.
“It’s not just cute nature program.” Goldberg said. “If we can get them early it has a great potential for impacting their future habits.
Savanna Lee said she looks forward to a career as a naturalist. “I want to become just like Miss Sue when I grow up,” she said.
Having raised such interest and enthusiasm in one so young is a key marker of Nature Nuts’ success said Kelley Van Egeren, director of development and communications at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center.
“Ninety-nine percent of the kids in this program don’t have access to nature. Their parents don’t take them. They’re not exposed to it. Some are afraid of nature,” she said. “But I really think our program succeeds when we help a child learn to love nature and learn to care about it enough to want to protect it, to make it part of their lives.”
This story originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of the Capital Region Business Journal corporate philanthropy column “Good Works”
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