The Affirmation of the Working Forum

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by Cory Kibler, Communications Specialist for the Nature Explore Program

WFF2Fantastic memories. New friends. Jetlag. Design possibilities. All these and more were things that resulted from the World Forum Foundation’s Working Forum on Design and Nature that took place March 11-14 in Rotorua, New Zealand.

At the Conference, there were:

115 attendees from many countries

3 full days of design and presentations

5 design possibilities each for

3 different sites in Ghana, Australia, and Cambodia

Finally, there were four Universal Principles that were discussed throughout the conference:

1. The power and importance of collaboration.

2. The importance of respecting the context of space and place.

3. The importance of the connection between inside and outside spaces.

4. The importance of the intention for the space.

Bonnie Neugebauer, Cofounder of the World Forum, said this of the process:

It was hard work. People didn’t sleep well, some didn’t sleep. They worked alone in the middle of the night and got up early to work together. There was a lot of struggling with different ways of thinking, and there were egos. Many got very frustrated. But each person stuck with it and at the end, every group had a detailed plan for a space for children that honored those particular children and as much as they were able to, this particular culture.

This process will sound familiar to anyone who works in early education and/or outdoor classroom design. Creating effective, amazing outdoor spaces for children is rewarding and spiritually recharging, but it’s far from easy; in fact, it’s often physically exhausting. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re rowing against the current. There can be conflict. It can be easy to take this frustration as a sign of inefficiency or incompetence.

WFF1Eventually, though, we see it for what it truly is: a sign that we care deeply about our children. People tend to have strong opinions about things they really care about, and at the end of the Working Forum, attendees were able to take a step back and realize that we are all working toward the same goal—even if we have different ideas on how to get there.

The Working Forum was both daunting and affirming. When we agree that every child deserves meaningful education and connections with nature, we take on a great responsibility to do everything in our power to make this a reality. However, in interacting with such brilliant and compassionate minds at just one conference, we are assured that the world’s children are in very capable hands.

My Big Backyard, Part 2: The Core of Outdoor Classroom Design

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by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

My Big Backyard 2About a week ago, we looked at Memphis Botanic Garden’s history, and at its amazing Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom: My Big Backyard. This week we’ll discover a few of the many activities available in the outdoor classroom and in the Garden at large.

The Memphis Botanic Garden serves people of all ages through programs, events, classes, art exhibits, clubs, and even concerts. A day’s activities for children can be part of an ongoing program, or specifically tailored to the curricular needs of a visiting school group. Groups of older youth and adults meet for classes and workshops throughout the Garden areas. Parties and events can also be scheduled in My Big Backyard, and elsewhere on the grounds. A rich series of music concerts is scheduled for the Garden’s amphitheater, a recent addition. Memphis Botanic Garden truly has reasons for everyone to visit and become involved.

The Education Department supports a variety of programs and classes for children and youth. Programs for younger children are conducted in My Big Backyard. The Caterpillar Club, for preschoolers and their caregivers, meets in the Seedling Circle. This spring’s daily themes of the Caterpillar Club’s explorations include “Worms and Dirt,” “Snakes, Slugs and Snails,” and “Bugs, Bugs, Bugs.” Educational programs also access specialty areas in the wider gardens. Jungle Journey, for example, takes place in the Tropical Greenhouse. Even educators are served through classes dedicated to teachers of young children.

During school breaks and in the summer, camps serve children from ages four through twelve. And day camping isn’t the only kind of camping in this space. Overnight family camping is an innovative service provided by My Big Backyard. The goal is to keep overnight camping as simple and traditional as possible. Roasting s’mores over a campfire gives these campers experiences rare for today’s children and families. Imagine a safe and educational natural area for children, directly in the city, in which families can bond through overnight camping. It’s no wonder that the programming and diversity of experiences offered in My Big Backyard has attracted so many visitors and increased the Garden membership considerably.

My Big Backyard 1My Big Backyard demonstrates compellingly that a Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom can contribute to the financial health of its sponsoring institution, while providing rich educational play experiences for children. It is also another example of a Nature Explore outdoor classroom’s flexibility. The core concept of the design is simple; a space in which nature inspires exploration and creativity in children, and that offers multiple outlets to express their wonder and learning. Guiding principles and activity areas ensure that the outdoor classroom can truly meet the goals of this core concept.

In My Big Backyard, Nature Explore design concepts are integrated vividly and creatively in ways that allow a variety of uses for the space. The Memphis Botanic Garden shows us the richness of experience that an outdoor classroom can provide for a whole community.

#MyTree Contest Announcement: Enter by April 10!

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by the Nature Explore Program


Everyone has a tree: A favorite reading spot, a secret hiding place, a branch to climb, a peach to pick—and we want to see yours. In honor of Arbor Day 2015 (April 24), we are holding our first-ever #MyTree Contest.

It’s simple to enter:

1. Take a photo of yourself and/or your child(ren) enjoying your tree;

2. Email entries to OR post the photo to Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram (if entering via social media, be sure to use the hashtag #MyTree and tag our FacebookTwitter, or Instagram account).

All entrants in the #MyTree contest will be eligible to win Natural Products and other prizes. The contest ends April 10, and a winner will be chosen randomly and announced on April 24 (Arbor Day).

Good luck—we can’t wait to see you and your tree!

My Big Backyard, Part 1: What’s Good for Children is Also Good For Business

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by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

Memphis 1Through these blog posts, we often learn about how people are using their Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms that are associated with schools and daycare programs. Because few venues with outdoor classrooms charge admission, we rarely learn how these spaces contribute to their parent organizations, whether for profit or non-profit. In Tennessee, the Memphis Botanic Garden got their Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, My Big Backyard, right; very right.

The Garden membership that had largely consisted of seniors and individuals—and few families—soon changed. Within several months of My Big Backyard’s opening, membership soared 300 percent! Free memberships were given to families that receive state subsidies to ensure that children’s programs are available to all.  The Garden now receives around 230,000 visits a year. Even with modest admission fees, My Big Backyard contributes healthily to the overall budget. It is an excellent example of great work that is reshaping the institution that created it.

The Memphis Botanic Garden’s first “seed” garden, around which many were later built, was formed in the 1950s.  A group of iris lovers requested space in an urban park to share their flowers with the city. Soon, other groups formed further gardens, until the Memphis Botanic Garden took the general form it has today. Occupying over 96 acres, it now houses 28 specialty gardens.

Just seven years ago, something was missing: a sizeable space dedicated to children. The board of directors had been considering a formal children’s area for years, and staff had long been studying children’s programs in many related venues. In 2008, members of the education staff attended the Nature Explore Leadership Institute at the Arbor Day Farm, and their designs for My Big Backyard reflected what they learned.  Incorporating the Nature Explore recommended areas and Ten Guiding Principles, they very quickly built an amazing children’s experience on 2.6 acres. Its construction was well-funded through major corporate gifts and contributions from the community. Understanding both the space and how it’s used tells us why it has become such a valued community resource.

Just to hear some of the activity area names and descriptions is to get a taste of the excitement My Big Backyard inspires in children:

Home Sweet Home

Come on in and learn about the important roles that plants play in our homes!

Seedling Circle (designed for infants and toddlers)

Explore the shapes and colors of this hands-on garden for our smallest sprouts!

Treetop Adventure

Get a bird’s eye view of the Garden and learn about our feathered friends.

Backyard Bluff and Wormville

Wiggle like a worm through larger-than-life worm tunnels, then become a rock star on the outdoor stage…your audience can take a seat on the giant worm “benches” as you create rhythms on the marimbas, drums, and bells.

And these are just four of the 13 activity areas in My Big Backyard.

Memphis 2

Let’s explore the Treetop Adventure as an example. Take the stone Bird Pathway (more on this soon) to the tall wood posts. You’re at the base of the tree house. You can get up to the house via the wheelchair ramp or stairs. From the tree house porch, you can look down and see that the stone path is truly in the shape of a bird. And while you’re up there, you can see the activity in the many birdhouses just above the skyway; each made by a local artist. If you want to return to Earth quickly, you can take the curved slide down, or just descend via the stairs or ramp.

This level of attention to wonder-inspiring features is only half of My Big Backyard’s story. The other half is the rich diversity of educational programs, workshops, activities, camps, and events conducted by its dedicated educators and volunteers.  In our next post, you’ll learn about the variety of services provided by the Memphis Botanic Garden, including one that we believe is unique within our Nature Explore family of outdoor classrooms.

A Wall That Entwines Us

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By Cory Kibler, Communications Specialist for the Nature Explore Program

Fresh from the dynamic energy of CAEYC in Sacramento, California, the Nature Explore program is once again reminded of the fantastic community of advocates working together to change the world’s approach to early education.

At the Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project® conference booth, our Nature Explore program ambassadors wanted to offer current and future partners something honest, fun, and meaningful to engage in during their visit. The result: The “Share Your Memories in Nature Wall.”

Memories in Nature Wall

This wall was constructed from twine, and booth visitors were invited to write down their favorite memory in nature on a colorful card and tie it to the wall, thereby creating a tactile tapestry of powerful experiences. The hope was that it would resonate with people; luckily, visitors shared countless magical memories, going above and beyond any expectations.

Memory Wall3

These memories are important. Aside from offering insight into what we hold dear about nature, the Memories in Nature Wall helps answer the question: “How can we create positive memories in nature for future generations?”

Sometimes, as adults with jobs and families and other grown-up responsibilities, it’s hard for us to remember why we fell in love with nature in the first place. The first time we saw a redwood tree; the moment when we realized the sky is much more replete with stars when viewed in the country; our first panoramic view of an expansive ocean; simply playing near a creek or camping with our families; all of these memories are gifts that make our hearts swell upon reflection.

These memories can also serve as gifts for our children. As advocates for nature, we yearn to share the very magic that captured our hearts and souls when we were young. A lot of things lose their mystique as we grow older, but the nature that surrounds us—a foggy trail in the tall trees of the Pacific Northwest, a rolling Midwestern plain, the towering purple peaks of a mountain range—these only become more important as we age. We realize their vital role in our formative years, the (seemingly miraculous) circumstances that led to their formation, and the ways they can inspire generations of children to come.

As individuals, our dreams can sometimes feel small. At the same time, we work to change the world on a grander scale through meaningful connections with nature. So: How do we get from Point A to Point B?

Sometimes, on our journey, a wall is a guide, rather than an obstacle.



The U.S. Forest Service: A National Treasure in Partnership with Nature Explore

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By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

Two Trivia Questions:

Q. It’s 1971. In the classic family TV show “Lassie,” Timmy Martin and his family move to Australia. Who gets Timmy’s collie dog, Lassie?

A. Lassie’s new owner is Garth Holden. Garth soon becomes a U.S. Forest Service Ranger. Subsequent Lassie episodes are filmed in a variety of National Forests.


Q. What was the Zip Code assigned to Smokey Bear by the U.S. Postal Service?

A. The real Smokey Bear, rescued from a treetop by U.S. Forest Service Ranger/Firefighters after a 1950 forest fire, received so much mail to his eventual home in the National Zoo that he received his own zip code: 20252.


If you answered both questions correctly, move to the head of the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.

RMNPThe U.S. Forest Service has provided invaluable support to Nature Explore Classroom projects in Colorado and Texas. Through these projects, the Forest Service is instrumental in ensuring that thousands of children in years to come will receive significant daily contacts with nature.

We in the Nature Explore family know the increasingly vital importance of the outdoors to children. Yet the U.S. Forest Service has been providing information and services to everyone—families, children, and even businesses—for well over 100 years.

The Forest Service’s roots stretch back to 1876, when Congress funded research into the condition of our country’s forests. By the early 1900s, the newly designated United Stated Forest Service was acquiring increasing responsibilities for our public lands. Today, its wide-ranging responsibilities, research, and services are invaluable to the health and preservation of our forests, grasslands, and aquatic ecosystems. Yet very few of us realize the full depth of our indebtedness to this amazing national resource.

Did you know that the Forest Service actively manages over 193 million acres of public land, and is in stewardship partnerships for much more?

Also, the Forest Service:

…performs extensive conservation research, available through the “Treesearch” web database, in over 43,000 publications;

…houses the nation’s most experienced wildland firefighting teams in its Fire and Aviation Management division;

…has delivered its fire prevention public service ad campaign for over 70 years (Smokey Bear joined the campaign in 1944);

…and provides law enforcement services in our National Parks.

And this is just a very small sampling of its many activities.

The U.S. Forest Service ensures that our public lands are managed to balance ecosystems, along with recreational, and industrial needs. Its trails and forest maintenance allow recreational users to enjoy truly wild places. Backpackers, hikers, skiers, and many others benefit directly from Forest Service activities whenever they visit public lands. Yet it also provides businesses large and small with expert, research-based information on best-practice policies for forest, farmland, and wetland usage.

For years, the Forest Service has partnered with Arbor Day Foundation, one of the founders of the Nature Explore program. In 1976, collaborating with the Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, Arbor Day Foundation launched “Tree City USA.” This program guides and supports small towns and large cities alike in comprehensive urban forestry programs, nurturing trees as valuable community resources. What started as 42 Tree City USAs has grown into 3,400 nationwide.

The Forest Service has also partnered with Arbor Day Foundation to replace trees damaged by fire, insects, and disease: In the past 20 years, 30 million trees have been planted on national forest lands. These collaborations merge expertise and resources into projects that benefit us all.

Those of us who have been around for a few generations take the long view of children’s relationship with nature. Yet the institutional memory of the U.S. Forest Service has the long+ view. Decades before the modern conservation movement started, the Forest Service was the conservation movement. Decades before we began worrying about children’s lack of outdoor time, the Forest Service provided many services to children and families, designed to give them enjoyable, informed, and safe outdoor experiences.

Mary Wagner, Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, in her impassioned remarks during Warren Village’s outdoor classroom opening ceremony, said, “The gift of hope and possibility is what you set course to do with this great Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. And so for the teachers and the parents who are going to back and support students in this experience, thank you; because you are changing lives and you may possibly be changing the world.”

We’d like to say to Ms. Wagner, and to all our friends at the U.S. Forest Service: “The gift to us all of our treasured National Forests is just one of the many that you give us, every day. To your Forest Rangers, Firefighters, Researchers, Law Enforcement Officers, Public Educators—thank you, because you are enhancing the quality of our lives by preserving our nation’s wild places. Through our partnership in service to the nation’s future environmental stewards, yes, we are changing lives. And we passionately believe that, together, we are changing the world.”


Our Outreach, and Why We’d Love to Speak With You

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By Cory Kibler, Communications Specialist with the Nature Explore program

OutreachWe at the Nature Explore program are a lucky group. Along with supporting a mission we believe to be more important than ever—connecting children with nature—we also get to spend a lot of time working and speaking with others who are also deeply invested in our children. Educators, administrators, teachers, parents, legislators, nonprofits, you name it: There are all kinds of people supporting this mission. And our interconnectedness is vital.

In an ideal world, the topic of early education would be an ongoing global conversation. While it’s not quite there yet, it’s on its way, all because of early-education advocates like you.

This is particularly apparent during upcoming events like California Association for the Education of Young Children Annual Conference (CAEYC), Conference on the Young Years, Green Schools National Conference, and countless others. Within these communities, we have the distinct honor of sharing our vision that, by connecting every child with nature every day in outdoor classrooms, we can impart a richer natural experience for every generation.

As if that weren’t amazing enough, we are also able to connect with others who share the same passion for education, but who have refreshingly unique and different approaches than ours. And, in traveling toward the same goals from all different angles and with different trajectories, we improve and evolve early education more than we can know.

Let’s start a conversation, if we haven’t already. Give us a call (888.908.8733). Send us an email. Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter. We’d love to speak with you.

Outdoor Classrooms: Grounding Children in Reality

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by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

8752810-hand-holding-the-earthSoon, a new form of Augmented Reality (AR) technology will be available for educational, business, and home use. Through the senses of sight and sound, AR vividly blends the real and virtual worlds. We believe that children who have frequent, meaningful contact with nature will be better able than their peers to balance attractive technologies with other educational and recreational interests. Also, they will be better able to differentiate AR’s strengths from its limitations. These are yet more reasons why we believe that ALL children could benefit profoundly from daily contacts with nature.

In past blog posts, we met a child who preferred outdoor play to watching videos before dinner—only after his exposure to a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. We met two sisters who asked for binoculars and clipboards for Christmas, so they could deepen their outdoor explorations. And we met the device-dependent students on a multi-day nature field trip to an area where their smartphones wouldn’t work. After exploring the terrain, swimming, and watching buffalo for three days, they didn’t miss their phones. I think we would agree that all these children have the possibility of finding a healthy role for technology in their lives; a balance that is often difficult for many other children to develop.

Now, fast-forward to the (near) future! Windows 10, a free operating system upgrade for PC platform computers, will be arriving soon. It will support AR functionality via the use of the “HoloLens” visor. You’ll be able to see and adjust translucent holograms (three-dimensional images made of light) projected into the real world.

With this technology, you’ll be able to walk around the room, interacting with both the real and virtual worlds at the same time. You’ll be able to manipulate a hologram’s size, position, and more. An example of AR’s usage is in toy design. A holographic representation of the toy is projected against an environment in which it will be used. Its dimensions, colors, etc. are adjusted by the designer’s hand movements, which result in the actual design modifications sent to the manufacturer. Many of us will soon be watching films on a screen size we customize with a few hand movements. Rumor says that the HoloLens goggles will be released as soon as the technology has matured to where the average user can control its functions consistently.

Yet more basic AR is already used in educational products. Some of these products are designed for very young children. If you can hold a smartphone or tablet computer, you’re old enough for Augmented Reality. For example, by holding a smartphone or tablet computer over a specially encoded book page, a three-dimensional image will appear. I’ve seen a cartoon-like dinosaur, which can be rotated and viewed at all angles, hovering over an encoded page. I can’t imagine this experience not being enormously engaging for a small child.

AR technology holds fascinating potentials for education. iPads and other tablet-style devices have long been used in preschools and elementary schools. Increasingly sophisticated AR, in some form, will probably soon find its way to very young children in homes and schools.

But what does Augmented Reality really have to do with Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms? A lot; IMHO (in my humble opinion). In fact, I believe that early experiences in an outdoor classroom can actually augment augmented reality—by keeping it honest.

The hologram of a flower, seen from all sides against the background of a real room, is still not a real flower. The hologram-flower would be engaging and fun to play with, but it will lack the visual complexity, aroma, and texture of a real flower.

Why should the extra qualities of a real flower matter when we can conjure fun flowers seemingly at will? After all, we often substitute texting for real conversation, despite the fact that texts carry only a fraction of the rich information of face-to-face dialog.

Today, we can easily find three- and four-year-olds whose first close-up experience with a flower is in an outdoor classroom. Like a hologram-flower, a real flower (in the ground) can be experienced from all angles. Unlike with the real flower, you’ll be able to change the shape and color of a hologram-flower. If you are designing a toy flower, these capabilities could be useful. But they are of limited usefulness for the ever-churning intellect of a small child.

If I were a normally inquisitive four-year-old who was closely experiencing a flowerbed for the first time, here are some of the questions I’d be asking myself:

“Why are they stuck in the ground? Why are some one color and some another? Why do they have different shapes? Why do the red ones smell different than the yellow ones? Are these like the ones I see at home? These flowers aren’t in water like at home—how do they drink? Why are there bugs on these flowers? Why does the teacher say to be careful with them? Do I have crayons these colors? Why does this leaf feel fuzzy, while the other doesn’t? Why are flowers colorful, when the trees and bushes aren’t? What will happen if I pick one?” Etc., etc…

To see, touch, and smell a variety of flowers in an outdoor classroom is to unlock a treasure chest of inquiry, to raise questions and theories, and to invite stories and drawings. Isn’t this exciting engagement with the beauty and complexity of nature an excellent grounding that will help place Augmented Reality into a proper context?

When the boundaries between AR and RR (real reality) are clear, the true benefits of each can be appreciated. And this is exactly why outdoor classrooms become even more critical to a child’s development as our societal engagement with virtual worlds deepens. With the scaffolding of experience that a wise adult can add to a child’s explorations in nature, the ideal foundation for further learning results. Children with rich grounding in nature will differentiate between the virtual and the real. They’ll know the limits of what can be learned about the real through the virtual. They’ll also, I suspect, be better prepared to reap the true benefits of Augmented Reality.

Give Yourself the Gift of the Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute

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By Nancy Rosenow, Executive Director of the Nature Explore program

lied-lodgeOne thing I’ve come to know for sure: I can only be as kind to others as I am to myself. That’s why I look forward to the Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute every year. It’s a time to relax, renew, grow professionally, grow as a community, and perhaps most importantly, grow personally.

Here’s the personal part: The people who attend are beginning to feel like family to me. We are kindred spirits. We all work to support children and families in one way or another, and we know that connections with the wonders of nature help children grow better, in all areas of development. And we adults—educators, administrators, and families—have felt our spirits lifted as well. Attendees at the Institute know this, and we remind each other of this fact. We say: “Be good to yourself. Go out and delight in nature’s gifts. Take this time for you.”

Here’s the professional part: Great ideas. As more and more people sign on to join the Institute “family,” exciting new thoughts are added to the mix, and we are all enriched. I come each year to gain new seeds of knowledge and creativity. I leave excited to plant those seeds. I can’t wait to see what will grow.

Here’s the community part: We need each other. The work we are doing is bringing about a new way of thinking—about children, about education, and about our relationship with the natural world. Not everyone understands what we’re trying to do—yet. We need each other’s support to help spread the vision, and we must not work alone. Just like giant sequoia trees, we need to intertwine our roots so we can weather life’s storms together. We’re part of something important here.

So, once again this year, I am giving myself the gift of attending the Leadership Institute at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, NE, July 19–23, 2015.

I really hope you’ll join me.

The Outside on the Inside

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by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant

Perseid_meteor_2007We all have a favorite toy. Mine was a black-and-white dog doll, my companion when I was a baby and toddler. I still have it, over 60 years later. I loved it then and I do now. That dog was my buddy, but I didn’t learn much from carrying it around: at least not that I remember. Later, there were toys that I learned from during play. But I don’t remember any as distinctly as I do that dog.

A few years later, as my dad and I lay on the sand under the vast, starry sky over Cape Cod, we watched for “shooting stars.” Back then I consulted books to learn that those meteorites we saw were smaller than a pea. Later, I learned about meteor showers. I still hear the shouts of “WOW” and “THERE’S ONE” from my two best friends as we witnessed the incredible Perseid shower of 1968 above a secluded pond. I’ve watched for shooting stars over my lifetime, and seen many. Each carries a trace of Cape Cod and my dad. This is the depth of the learning and relationships inspired by early experiences in nature when they are shared with adults and friends.

And this is why so many passionate advocates for connecting children with nature are people whose own childhoods were blessed with significant outdoor play. We harbor deeply personal memories that may not be introduced to children who aren’t exposed to nature. We’re afraid that a profoundly meaningful type of relationship in our lives will be absent in the lives of today’s children.

Now, I’m not knocking toys or indoor play. Toys are great. Many toys teach. Social and other skills are learned when toys and friends are combined. Indoor and outdoor play are healthy complements. Yet, for many of today’s children, one side is missing.

Time spent outdoors with your child, engaging with nature, is an investment in learning and relationship. Just as small, regular deposits in a bank account ensure steady growth and long-term rewards, daily contacts with nature ensure a lifetime of learning and memories.

Please feel free to share special memories from your relationship with nature in the comments section below. These can be memories from your childhood, or memories-in-the-making from your current relationships with children. We can all learn from them.