By Cadence Bambenek | May 29, 2016
A pack of Sherman Middle School students gathered in a circle at Warner Park to share their constructions of cattails, grass, mud and sticks.
Anke Keuser, a doctoral candidate in the Nelson Institute’s Environment and Resources program at UW-Madison, pulled out boxes of blue, pink and yellow candy Peeps, saying she thought they made a fitting prize for a bird-nest-building competition.
During the school year, the students made weekly excursions to Warner Park as part of a partnership between Sherman Middle School and the Nelson Institute.
The program, begun in 2011, is designed to support park preservation, as well as to fill an important need in after-school programming by building a nature-mentoring relationship between the middle schoolers and a small group of UW-Madison seniors who serve as “co-explorers.”
The program at Warner Park is just one of many in the greater Madison area designed to connect children to nature — there’s a website with a calendar of events at http://www.naturenet.org.
But the program’s focus on ethnically diverse students, many of whom live in poverty, is a rarity.
That, however, might be changing. In February, Madison was selected as one of seven cities nationally to participate in an initiative to connect urban and minority children to nature.
Created through a partnership between the National League of Cities and the Children & Nature Network, Cities Connecting Children to Nature is focused on getting urban youths to spend more time in green space.
Selected from 43 applicants, each of the seven cities received a $25,000 planning grant, said Margaret Lamar, Children & Nature Network’s director of strategic initiatives.
Research indicates that children’s well-being is directly connected to access to nature, Lamar said.
Children can experience physical and mental health benefits, as well as improved educational outcomes, she said.
Lamar also noted that more time spent in green spaces has been shown to build a better sense of community in neighborhoods.
Ensuring that all children have access to green space is seen as a way to improve the quality of life and boost success among urban youths, she said.
While the movement to connect children to nature has existed as a grassroots initiative for years, Lamar said, the Children and Nature Network decided that to create tangible policy changes, it was necessary to involve city government. So the network reached out to partner with the National League of Cities.
“Nature is not always a top priority for cities, but it can be,” Lamar said.
Madison demonstrated that making nature accessible for all children was a priority, she said.
Mary Michaud, director of Public Health Madison and Dane County’s Division of Policy, Planning & Evaluation, said the initiative recognizes Madison’s existing approach to engaging youth in nature through programs like the one at Sherman Middle School.
The city’s natural environment and racial disparities made it a prime location for the planning grant, Michaud said.
Local organizations, such as Public Health Madison and Dane County and Madison Parks, are collaborating to use the planning grant, she said.
“I think that what we’re finding is that there’s a lot of interest and enthusiasm because people increasingly recognize the … individual and community benefits of spending time in nature,” Michaud said. “We’re hopeful that our partnership with Parks and all these other organizations will blossom.”
This summer, the initiative intends to hire six interns through the Wanda Fullmore Youth Internship Program.
In order to decide how to prioritize potential neighborhoods for the initiative, Michaud said the interns will conduct interviews to capture community stories and then compare their anecdotal findings with Public Health data.
“(They’re going to) go into the community and ask, ‘Is this really how it is, or do you see something different?’” Michaud said.
At the same time, Michaud said the interns will bring another perspective to the community design process: their own.
“If we can use this experience to grow our network of youth and young adults that live in the neighborhoods where neighborhood planning is going on, for example, they’ll be a really instrumental voice in shaping how those neighborhoods … evolve to be more healthy, to be more sustainable and to improve the quality of life for the people living there,” Michaud said.