State Programs Can Help Connect Kids with Nature – for Everybody’s Benefit!


Last year I committed to the 52 Hike Challenge. The goal: Accomplish at least 52 miles on trails outdoors during a single year.

During my challenge (which I am repeating this year) I hiked alone, with my dog, with my sister, and with many friends. I love to hit the trail with each and every one of them, but I admit my favorite hiking buddy is my 12-year-old goddaughter, Natalie. On our hikes, she dumps her iPad and her seventh-grade sophistication to enjoy all the incredible things that the forest puts in front of her.

While using a wind-thrown tree trunk as a balance beam, she startles a couple of white-tail deer and sends them bounding.

Crouching in the middle of the trail on a late summer morning, she points out a cluster of tiny white “boogie woogie” aphids clinging to a beech leaf in a gyrating white mass.

Walking past the river on a clear January afternoon, she can’t help but poke the thin ice at the water’s edge with a stick to see how much force it will take to break through.

It’s a joy to watch a kid immerse herself in the natural environment, inquire about it and learn from it. Getting kids outside is also an important component of their well-being. A growing body of studies suggests that spending time in nature can help kids relieve stress, boost their ability to focus and improve self-discipline. Kids who spend time in nature also are more likely to become good stewards of nature, managing our forests and wild lands for generations to come.

So how do we – as guardians of children and as natural resources communicators – help kids get out there?

Going outside – anywhere — is a start. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has launched the Nature Awaits program, which aims to get all Michigan fourth graders into Michigan state parks on field trips for a 90-minute experiential program.

“This program will give fourth-grade students an opportunity to visit a state park and experience a different kind of classroom where nature is the guide and student-centered learning is on the agenda,” said Katie McGlashen, program coordinator. “Teachers will be happy to know that field trips are curriculum based, and students will make lasting memories outdoors with their friends and classmates.”

To help strengthen their ties to state parks, students also will get a free entry voucher so they can return with their families.

“We aim to foster a relationship with our state parks that will last their entire lifetime,” McGlashen said.  

In addition to Nature Awaits opportunities, the American Tree Farm System and DNR in Michigan support the Wheels to Woods program, which pays transportation costs for  school trips to forests.

Those are commitments to organized visits to the woods, but casual trips like the ones I take with my goddaughter are also important. One of the most popular items the Michigan DNR’s Forest Resources Division staff give away during outreach missions is a scavenger hunt booklet produced through our sustainable forestry public information campaign. The campaign uses TV and digital ads, social media and more to explain the importance of forests and sustainable forestry to Michigan’s urban and suburban communities.

The pocket-sized booklet contains a list of things for kids to look for when they’re outside, whether that’s in a state forest, a nearby park or even their own back yards. It directs kids to find things such as a fern leaf, a winged seed, a snail shell, a green leaf, a wildflower, animal tracks, unusual tree bark or a tree that looks like it has a face.

It’s designed to help any kid, anywhere, become more observant about the natural world around us.

That’s also the goal of Project Learning Tree, another wonderful resource for this kind of immersion in nature. The nationwide program with coordinators in each state helps educators find fun ways to immerse kids in their classrooms in the outdoors. It also offers families a variety of activities for helping kids learn about the importance of forests and the environment.

For example, the Name that Tree activity incorporates a plant-recognition cell phone app to make a game out of identifying trees and plants in your neighborhood or on a trail. But you don’t need technology to do other activities, such as Birds and Bugs, where children observe and learn about colors and camouflage. Trees in Trouble  turns kids into forest health detectives, looking for signs of distress among trees.

“Instilling a love of nature in kids is one of the best gifts you can give them, not only for learning and enjoyment, but also for their health, well-being and happiness,” said Andrea Stay, who coordinates Project Learning Tree for Michigan

That’s what I have enjoyed so much about watching Natalie romp the trails with me. There’s always something new, and she is always involved. Maybe next week I can find a black cherry tree to show her the scaly, dark bark that some describe as a “burnt potato chip” look. Maybe she can find more boogie-woogie aphids to show me! Maybe we’ll discover something entirely new together.


Kathleen Lavey is a communication specialist in the Forest Resources Division of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Before joining the DNR in 2017, she spent several decades in journalism.