After a year and a half of outreach work in Houston neighborhoods in collaboration with other state park interpreters, I attended the Children in Nature Conference looking for ideas. Even in Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city, nature is not some faraway place. It’s all around, from the poorest to the wealthiest neighbhorhoods. It takes the form of plants and animals who’ve re-entered habitat taken over by urban sprawl or left behind in islands of green, some of which are part of city community centers.
At the conference, I picked up ideas for using technology to connect children to the nature all around them. I learned about a magnifying device that opens new worlds for kids to learn about insects and other small animals. I was introduced to new social media applications that can empower kids to photograph, write about and report what they see to make connections with nature. And I had the opportunity to work with other participants in brainstorming ideas for connecting young people to nature in urban settings.
From the discussion, an idea emerged that I’ll be investigating further: work with urban community centers to setup wildscapes in Houston neighborhoods. The small plots required to do this could provide several opportunities to connect children with nature: Kids can do the planning and physical labor required to setup a wildscape. Once constructed, a wildscape is a constantly changing microcosm of nature and native species. Kids don’t have to travel far to see it, which helps eliminate problems we always seem to encounter transporting young people to nature. Kids learn more about nature by maintaining a wildscape. Finally, the community of life sustained in a wildscape provides an ever changing and renewing source of hands-on nature study program material.
Another potential outgrowth of my attendance to this conference is the rethinking of the target audience for our outreach programs. Texas State Parks in the Houston area have been addressing outreach nature study programs primarily to young people in community centers. This has enriched their experience but been difficult to use in sustaining the personal growth of the audience for lifelong connection to nature. And the initial experience by itself is not enough to build connections to nature.
As a result of attending this conference and the advice of TPWD leadership, my thoughts have turned towards building partnerships that will allow Texas State Parks outreach programs to reach not just young people but entire families. We need to connect children with nature, but if we can also reach their parents, we are more likely to be able to contribute to the altering of a path of a generation.
One idea we have for reaching children and their parents at the same time is to offer our outreach programs to Houston religious institutions. With their focus on family, churches, synagogues, mosques and temples may provide the type of established audiences that will allow us to present more than just a one time experience for children. Through these means, it is our hope to make connection with nature an ongoing part of inner city Houston, family life.
Walt Bailey is a Regional Interpretive Specialist for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in the Houston area.