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International Children & Nature Conference Brings Thought Leaders to Austin

AUSTIN — This year has been a momentous year for the children and nature movement. Ten years after publication of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and five years after the establishment of the Texas Children in Nature collaborative, there is new and growing urgency around connecting children and families to nature.

The Children & Nature Network 2015 Conference at the Hyatt Lost Pines Resort on April 7-9 has attracted more than 500 leaders from around the world representing the conservation, health, education, technology and built- environment communities. Attendees will explore innovative ways to encourage families, schools, churches, non-profits and businesses to support getting kids active and into nature.

“Texas is honored to host this outstanding conference in our state,” says Jennifer Bristol, Coordinator for Texas Children in Nature. “Research shows that children and families who spend time in nature are healthier, happier and smarter. We want this conference to inspire action to get more Texans enjoying the outdoors.”

One initiative highlighted this year is the groundbreaking national effort “Every Kid in a Park.” In February the National Park Service in partnership with the White House announced this new program to give every fourth grader a National Parks Pass to get kids out enjoying their public lands. National Park Service Director, Jonathon Jarvis will be at the conference to promote the initiative alongside Christy Goldfuss, Managing Director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“As the world becomes more urban and more plugged-in, we need nature more than ever,” says Sarah Milligan-Toffler, Executive Director of the Children & Nature Network. “Parents, teachers and city leaders are seeing the need to reverse Nature-Deficit disorder.”

Louv says the children and nature movement has been growing steadily for a decade, but he believes 2015 is a tipping point. In Texas and around the world, at the grassroots and at the national level, there has been a surge in action and progress.

The first day of the conference focuses on the intersection of technology and nature and will explore both the limitations of technology and how it can be used as a tool to help children and families explore outside.

“After years of condemning technology for driving our children away from the wonder and joy of nature and outdoor play, the children and nature movement is looking at positive ways in which technology can be used to encourage and engage children in nature play and learning,” says Molly Stevens, Executive Director of the Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center.

The Technology and Nature Summit taking place on the first day of the conference showcases some of the latest apps and gear used to help families explore in nature. Tuesday afternoon, a drone used by the Boy Scouts in Bastrop will be featured to show the growth and density of the tree canopy.

Highlights from the April 8conference day include presentations on promoting access to nature in cities with internationally renowned speaker Gil Penelosa; Dr. Joe Frost and Rusty Keeler will explore the value of nature play; and Nick Clemons from the National Park Service and Catlin Cox of Disney will talk about engaging Millennials with nature-smart jobs.

Other sessions will address the importance of nature connections for the healthy development of children with experts such as Catherine Jordan, Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, Jeannette Ickovics, Ph.D. from Yale University, and Autumn Saxton-Ross, Ph.D. of the National Collaborative for Health Equity.

The final day of the conference is designed to put inspiration into action and will feature a session on how to Engage Diversity in Careers in the Outdoor Industry hosted by Texas Children in Nature and Audubon Texas. There will be a field trip to some of Austin’s most notable natural play areas, such as the one at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and a service project to give back to the community at Bastrop State Park.

The Children & Nature Conference is a collaborative effort between the Children & Nature Network, Texas Children in Nature and Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center. Major sponsors of the Conference include; Playcore, Canadian Wildlife Federation, The Meadows Foundation, Disney World Wildlife Fund, Applied Materials, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Audubon Texas, Conserve School, Landscape Structures, Toyota, St. David’s Foundation, Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds and many others.

Photo by: Jennifer Bristol