Deschutes Children’s Forest
On a mid-summer’s Thursday in Southwest Bend’s Hollygrape Park, families sit semi-circle in the grass. Wide-eyed children stare at a blind raven perched atop the arm of The High Desert Museum (THDM) employee Carolyn Nesbit. The kids jump at the chance to answer a question as community leaders from THDM, Bend Metro Park & Recreation District (BMPRD) and Discover Your Forest (DYF) look on with approval. The presentation ends with a tailor-made, paper owl craft.
The free “Birds of Prey” event, presented by THDM, was one of six “Discover Nature Days” organized by The Deschutes Children’s Forest this summer. In their continuing effort to fight the decline of children spending time outdoors, otherwise known as “Nature Deficit Disorder,” the DCF matched BPRD with local environmental powerhouses The Environmental Center, Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, DYF and THDM.
“We are trying to provide opportunities for all children in Central Oregon to connect with nature,” explains Deschutes Children’s Forest Coordinator, Katie Chipko. “Not just school-based, but hands-on, play-based activities as well.”
Deschutes Children’s Forest (DCF), established as one of nine National Children’s Forests in 2011, has a simple goal of providing, “a network of outdoor places and programs dedicated to moving all children along a continuum of learning, exploration, and healthy living through engagement with nature.”
It Takes A Village
Currently one of twenty-two National Children’s Forests, DCF has identified thirty-seven Central Oregon sites, located in United States Forest Service (USFS) lands, state parks, local parks, and museums, as places for kids to explore and learn about nature. They are also working with BMPRD to create “Naturehoods,” or local parks connected to schools that have features designed to inspire students and families about nature. In the future, Skyliner Lodge in Deschutes National Forest will transform into the Children’s Forest Discovery Center.
Meanwhile, the organization’s advisory board reads like a who’s who of local child advocates. Prominent school district leaders, heads of environmental non-profits, U.S. Forest Service managers, and physicians meet monthly to carve out a nature-oriented path for learning.
By offering training, monetary and marketing assistance, DCF helps each partner organization reach their potential, all the while meeting their own lofty goals. Over the 2012-2013 school year, DCF reached over 11,000 students and 300 teachers. They hope to increase that number to 14,000 by June of 2014.
Many Central Oregon organizations offer unique educational services, including nature-based programs. DCF is interested in helping to grow these programs as a way to increase the number of kids playing and learning outside.
Chipko explains, “We recognize their strengths. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel.”
Laura Furgursen, board member and executive director of Discover Your Forest adds, “I have been very pleasantly surprised by the real collaboration between the various partners.”
A Little History
Deschutes Children’s Forest was born out of a desire to help teachers and parents plan and implement nature-based activities for their children. As a grant writer for Bend LaPine School District, Bruce Abernethy recognized the teachers were being stretched too thin.
“I would be able to get (educational) grants for programs and supplies, but the teachers wouldn’t have the time or support to implement them into the curriculum,” illustrates DCF board co-chair Abernethy.
After asking the school district if he could search for grants that helped not only the students, but the teachers as well, Abernethy reached out to the local USFS office about nature-based, educational opportunities. John Allen, Forest Supervisor for the Deschutes National Forest, and Sean Ferrell, Forest Volunteer and Partnerships Program Manager, were very interested and lead Bruce to the National Children’s Forest program.
“As the main internal contact, Sean, along with the entire Forest Service has been phenomenal,” emphasizes Abernethy.
An Important Resource
DCF prides itself as being an important resource to combat the rising trends of childhood obesity, asthma, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and depression. Physicians Mary Brown of Central Oregon Pediatrics Association and Kristi Nix of Mosaic Medical allow DCF to address kids’ needs from a health care perspective. Through their, RX: 2 Thrive program, the doctors lend credibility to the idea of “prescribing” outdoor playtime to promote active lifestyles.
By offering teacher trainings and resources, DCF allows area teachers to use what they’ve learned throughout the year. DCF also provides funding to partners to help defray costs for underprivileged kids.
One of DCF’s core values states “accessible opportunities with nature must be provided for children and youth of all abilities, backgrounds and ages.” To that end, DCF is working to ensure all of their facilities meet accessibility standards. In addition, they offer “Teacher and Educator Inclusion Training” to build teacher confidence in bringing their special needs students to each facility.
A Noble Goal
In speaking to its long-term importance, Chipko reminds us, “kids who don’t fall in love with their backyards won’t work towards stewardship of our public lands.”
For more information on the Deschutes Children’s Forest, please visit www.deschuteschildrensforest.org.
For most people, the thought of school conjures up chalk dust torture images of blackboards, wooden desks, and spelling tests. Several local organizations are looking to reform that idea.
The Bend Science Station has been molding young scientists since their humble beginnings in 2003. What started as a class of four has morphed into a scientific wonder reaching nearly 5,000 kids from thirty-six Deschutes County schools. This summer, thirteen wait-listed camps studied bugs, fire and photovoltaic cells. In the past nine years, BSS kids have won more than 93 awards, including $145,000 in scholarships.
The High Desert Museum has created learning experiences with exhibits, wildlife and living history since 1982. Last fiscal year 164,820 visitors, including more than 10,000 school kids, learned about the life cycle of a butterfly and watched actors give accurate portrayals of early settler life. In addition to creating lifelong learners, THDM brings in over $1 million as a cultural tourism destination.