Accepting the Forest Chiefs Honor Award

Last month I had the privilege of visiting Washington D.C. to accept the Chief’s Honor Award—the highest awards given out by the U.S. Forest Service to publically recognize exemplary achievements in Forest Service programs that contribute to the Service’s strategic goals.

The Engaging Urban America award—the award presented—recognizes Forest Service individuals, work units, partnerships, or groups that have demonstrated major achievements in promoting conservation education, community “greening” efforts, and management of urban forests and youth opportunities to volunteer in urban forestry activities in their neighborhoods.

As Chief of the USDA Forest Service Tom Tidwell and others spoke of the award I was taken by the power and influence of partnerships. This was an achievement of federal, state and local collaboration. Public and private partners engaged to change the lives of children in Denver. It was a memorable experience to witness how Nature Explore, and more importantly, the challenge of connecting young people with nature has been embraced and championed by so many with a common goal. In this case, it was an opportunity to recognize US Forest Service team members who are leading the way.

I accepted the award on behalf of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation for our work with the Warren Village project. Warren Village is a program that helps motivated, previously homeless single parent families to move from public assistance to personal and economic self-sufficiency through subsidized housing, on-site child care, educational guidance and career development.

The Certified Nature Explore Classroom at the Greta Horowitz Learning Center at Warren Village is unique for multiple reasons. The Center uses Creative Curriculum, a child-centered approach in which the children’s interests drive a variety of projects. The Center is located in downtown Denver, and although there is a public park close to the Nature Explore classroom at Warren Village, residents of Warren Village wouldn’t use it out of fear of their safety. This Nature Explore classroom gives mothers and children the comfort of security with the enjoyment of outdoor exploring.

This project was a collaboration of organizations, including the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado State Forest Service and Colorado Parks & Wildlife. The sponsored classroom illustrates the great work we can do when we come together.

Additionally, the outdoor space at Warren Village serves as a model of how communities can engage local partners. One example of its effect is in Philadelphia, where a second classroom is being created with the help of the Philadelphia Water Department, Philadelphia Horticultural Society and Philadelphia Forest Service.

It is meaningful to be part of something that is enriching lives through outdoor classrooms and inspiring to see where else our collaborations will lead us.

Idaho’s first Nature Explore classroom featured on local NBC affiliate

I’ll admit I was somewhat surprised to receive a phone call earlier this month about Funshine Early Childhood in Idaho Falls. It was among the first times we’d been asked about a Nature Explore classroom before even sending out the press release.

3FUNSHINESnaturescapeFunshine’s certification was definitely news worthy – the center, owned and operated by Kathy Reynolds – is the first Nature Explore Classroom in the state of Idaho.

Nature Explore is a collaborative project of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation developed in response to the growing disconnect between children and nature.

Reynolds began constructing the classroom after attending a Nature Explore training with educational services director Julie Rose. She posted an article in a local magazine, inviting friends, local businesses, civic leaders and the mayor to attend a groundbreaking event at her home, where she shared her vision.

The result is wonderfully captured in last week’s News Channel 6 segment showing children learning and playing in a creative outdoor learning space.

“There is a huge increase in childhood obesity because they are not getting outside,” Reynolds tells New Channel 6’s Summer Joy. She continues:

Unless they are outside learning and exploring a garden or harvesting what we grow, playing on rocks and boulders, balance on logs, they are not going to gain an appreciation for nature. They are the future – they are the ones that are going to be taking care of this world once we are gone and they need to be exposed to it.

We’d be hard pressed to better describe the importance of Nature Explore. View the segment for yourself here.

Photo courtesy of Nature Explore.

2013 Nature Explore PSA highlights children interacting with nature in outdoor classrooms

The new, 2013 Nature Explore PSA has been posted on the Nature Explore website.

A collaborative effort of the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, the mission of the Nature Explore program is to connect children with nature.

Today, children are more disconnected from nature than ever, more likely to spend idle time watching television indoors than running and playing outdoors.  If current trends continue, the next generation will enter adulthood facing greater health challenges, inferior social skills and a diminished conservation ethic.

NEC2With the development of Nature Explore Classrooms, children learn and play outdoors through experiencing the wonders of nature.

These well-designed outdoor spaces provide real-world evidence of the enormous benefit outdoor learning opportunities provide for children.

Proven to be beneficial for children affected by domestic violence, Mary Kay, Inc. has sponsored the development of 17 Nature Explore Classrooms at women’s shelters across the United States.

In urban areas where residents have limited access to nature and no backyards, places like Five Towns Child Care Center in Inwood, N.Y., or the Hooper Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, Calif., have built Nature Explore Classrooms to provide children and families with a safe place to spend time among grass, flowers, and trees, where children can explore, play, and learn nature’s many lessons.

NEC1There are currently more than a hundred certified Nature Explore Classrooms across the United States and Canada, and the list continues to grow.  As the network of Nature Explore Classrooms expands, the impact on children is also growing.  More children are developing meaningful connections with nature, instilling a lifelong sense of wonder and imagination.

Help connect more youths to the environment by sharing the 2013 Nature Explore PSA and spreading the word about the many benefits children experience when interacting with nature.

TV stations and networks can request the PSAs (:60, :30, :20, :15, :10) in your preferred format by emailing Sean Barry at

Watch the 2013 Nature Explore PSA below:

With support from Mary Kay, Inc., Nature Explore Classrooms helping to heal families affected by domestic violence

“It is an immediate pleasure to see children’s enthusiasm as they build, create, and discover in these nature-rich spaces. Children’s lives are more joyful, and they will always have in them a nature inspired sense of wonder.” John Rosenow

In 2009, as part of its corporate social responsibility initiative (Pink Changing Lives) and in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Mary Kay, in partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Education Research Foundation, began sponsoring the development of Nature Explore Classrooms at women’s shelters across the United States.

Nature Explore Classrooms are outdoor learning spaces designed to incorporate nature in to children’s lives and have been found to be greatly beneficial for children affected by domestic violence.

Research done by environmental psychologist Dr. Nancy Wells has revealed that nature acts as a buffer of life-stress for children. Wells found that “having nature close to a home protects the psychological well-being of children. And the impact is strongest for children with the highest levels of stressful life events. In addition, having green space around the home boosts their cognitive functioning”, encourages resilience, and supports healthy development.

Nature Explore Classrooms consist of building, climbing, music and movement, nature art, garden and greenhouse, gathering, and messy areas.  Children can lose themselves in the calming activity of arranging natural materials such as pine cones, seed pods, or seashells in the Nature Art Area, or alleviate stress through climbing, crawling, and balancing in the Climbing Area.  The Gardening and Greenhouse Area involves children in gardening and develops a sense of wonder about the world, growth, and new beginnings, while the Messy Area expands a child’s curiosity and imagination and gives them a sense of accomplishment by allowing them to dig for snails and worms or build with natural materials.

Each Nature Explore Classroom’s design is unique to fulfilling the shared purpose of enabling children to experience the joy, wonder, excitement, and peacefulness of discovery, fresh air, and pure play in outdoor splendor.

Mary Kay Inc. and The Mary Kay Foundation’s partnership with the Arbor Day Foundation led the way in 2009 as the first Nature Explore Classroom extolling the healing powers of nature to ever be constructed at U.S. domestic violence shelters. By the end of 2012, Mary Kay will have sponsored a total of 17 Nature Explore Classrooms.

The impact Mary Kay has had for victims of domestic abuse by partnering with the Arbor Day Foundation can be seen in the following video. This clip is testimony to the benefits of a quiet, safe and fun place for children to learn, play and heal.  Nature Explore Classrooms “provide a connection to nature that keeps people connected to the best in themselves and battles trauma and tragedy with play and purpose.”

Wyoming inspires the Arbor Day spirit year-round

Wyoming marks Arbor Day today, the last Monday in April.

Cheyenne and Casper, the two largest cities in the sparsely-populated Equality State, both have activities planned.

Wyoming residents have often been an inspiration for the Arbor Day Foundation, and vice versa. The Casper-based Laurie’s Inn, the first certified Nature Explore classroom in the state of Wyoming, was recertified for the third year in a row in 2011. Inn owner and childcare provider Laura Stadtfeld is eager to share the wonders of the outdoors with both children and their families.

Likewise, Lisa Olson, director of forestry for Cheyenne, was inspired by the awesome and enriching experience children were having at our tree house here at Arbor Day Farm, an experience noted by our founder and chief executive John Rosenow during his remarks on the dedication of the new Discovery Ride Depot this past weekend.

As John described it, Lisa was so inspired by what she saw that she decided her hometown needed something similar. Lisa kept at it until her dream became a reality. Cheyenne now has a 20-foot tall tower adjoining a grove of ponderosa pine trees in the city’s Lions Park.

The enjoyment children derive from this community treasure in Cheyenne is plain to see. The success is obvious, according to Lisa. “When it came time to evaluate success of the project,” she says, “I suggested that the grantor simply look at how the wooden steps are already being worn down.”

Wyoming is currently home to 42 Tree City USA communities, accounting for 337,766 people. The largest Tree City USA in the State of Wyoming is Cheyenne, population 57,618; the smallest is Chugwater, population 244.

 Photo courtesy of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce.