Friends of Youth and Nature is all about getting kids outdoors, and the experience of growing a garden is one of the best outdoor adventures kids can have close to home. In this heat and smoke from recent nearby fires, and with the current pandemic, it’s easy for the outdoor spirit to be diminished. But, it’s only momentary; time will clear our air, bring us the fall temperate climate, and eventually we’ll get in front of COVID! Meanwhile, there is gardening. Time in the garden is rewarding, meditative, and oh so productive. For young people it’s a way to engage deeply with Mother Nature—and by deeply, we mean deep in the soil. In Delta, Montrose and Mesa counties there are several programs that get kids outdoors and into the soil to learn and experience nature’s wonders. From schools to community gardens to libraries, programs are in motion and kids are involved.
The Delta County School district has an incredible Farm to School program with a garden at each of the eight elementary schools. The program director is Angela Flores (also an advanced math educator) who provides the energy, vision, knowledge and enthusiasm to create a successful and fun program. It’s a comprehensive program that addresses the health benefits of growing a garden and also food insecurity within the school district. The kids learn to grow their own food and can bring those skills home to add to the food on the table. They learn where food comes from, how to grow it on their own, and how working in the soil can contribute to healthy bodies and minds. Kids learn to be soil stewards through these experiences in the garden.
Currently this outdoor learning opportunity is for kids in kindergarten through fifth grades. During the school year the kids come to the outdoor garden to learn soil science, composting, pollinators and pollination, seed saving, plant life cycles, insect life cycles, and about water sources and soil erosion. Whew—that’s a lot, but it creates so much knowledge and thoughtfulness in the real life experience of the school gardens. In the summer Angela has a Garden Club program at five of the district schools. The students come out once a week for a few hours and spend their time maintaining the garden, getting a gardening lesson and conducting experiments. For example, they might do some soil testing and discuss natural amendments to add to soil to better support plant health. As the garden starts producing, the club members learn how to market and sell their produce at a local farmer’s market, creating a full circle of knowledge around the necessities of life. This summer COVID prevented the club from meeting regularly, but Angela put together 150 seed and soil kits for the members to take home (like I said, she is super energetic). They grew radishes, lettuce and sweet peas, which are all plants that grow and grow again when cut. This was productive, educational, and placed the kids in the dirt out of doors.
In 2019 the Colorado Health Foundation provided a grant to the Delta County Farm to School program, supporting the entire endeavor and the Western Colorado Community Foundation and Friends of Youth and Nature helped fund the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Compost program. This is learning in action as the kids learn about life cycles and ecosystems! Angela discovered quickly how these lessons can grow outside the classroom when a couple of kids said they wouldn’t go to their favorite restaurant anymore because the restaurant did not use recyclable or compostable take away boxes. Being brave kids, they went ahead and met with the restaurant owner to give them their ideas. The very best thing happened when the restaurant changed to recyclable to-go boxes. Once again, it was a full circle of learning, creating thought provoking actions, and long-term land stewardship thinking.
Young people don’t automatically love putting their hands or feet into the soil. They may even hate getting dirty—but the natural world includes dirt. Once they experience putting their feet into the soil, or looking at soil through a magnifying glass, or holding a worm they found coming up out of the soil, they begin to understand the fun of it all. Once they start actually looking for things in soil, and understand it’s more than “dirt,” they LOVE it. As one child said “I played in the soil and it was SO MUCH FUN!”
The Delta County Farm to School program has big goals. They plan to secure more AmeriCorps Vista members to help expand the program from K-5 to all age groups. The 6-8th graders and 9th – 12th graders are in the midst of serious brainstorming on plans for next year’s garden projects. Ideas floating around include indoor tower gardens, bigger production fields and even hydroponics! Not just useful skills, but life skills that create that connection between our youth and the world within our soils. Learn more about Delta’s Farm to School program through sites.google.com/deltaschools.com/farmtoschool or on Facebook at Delta County Farm to School Project
In Montrose County, The Valley Food Partnership has supported community and school gardens since 2013 and helped develop five community gardens and six school gardens in the county. Take a peek at the awesome resources and lesson plans on their website (valleyfoodpartnership.org/gardens) such as “schoolyard salsa”, and “how big is a foot?” Get some great ideas on how to plant the seeds of knowledge and engage youth about the wonders of gardening, plant science and more (valleyfoodpartnership.org/gardens). Don’t forget to check out the children’s garden and the story walk at the Montrose Botanical Garden!
The Mesa County library has developed a discovery garden for families at the 5th and Chipeta Avenue location. Take a tour of the garden with your children and start plans for next spring’s garden projects. The library is hosting special fall garden events with topics that may include fall bulb planting! Check their website event calendar (mesacountylibraries.org). You can also check out a pass to visit the butterfly exhibit at the Grand Junction Botanical Garden and learn how important pollinators are to successful gardens.
It takes adults as well as children to bring these great ideas to life. If you love digging in the dirt, and enjoying the fruits of you labor, consider sharing the experience of gardening with your communities youth. Not only will you be joining Friends of Youth in Nature in the effort to get kids outdoors, YOU will get outdoors too and benefit from the surprising wonders in our own backyard.
lants – we all have a relationship with them. This bond with nature is an integral part of the cultures of many indigenous people, and the use of native plants by the Ute People of Western Colorado is particularly engaging. This traditional use of plants for medicinal, cultural, and culinary purposes by native peoples is called ethnobotany.
It is truly amazing that the Ute people have thrived for thousands of years in the harsh climate conditions of Western Colorado. The Utes, and their ancestors, moved through different ecosystems corresponding with the seasons as food became available, as shown in artifacts dating back 12,900 years at the Eagle Rock Shelter Archeological dig in the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area.
Many important plants to the Utes grow abundantly on local public lands, and some are still used in traditional Ute Ceremonies. One such plant seen along the lower elevations of Grand Mesa and the Uncompahgre Plateau is the Banana Yucca. Its fruit, flowers, and stalks are edible, and people make twine by braiding fibers stripped from the leaves. Every part of the common Utah Juniper also has a use. The Utes use its bark for sandals, thatching, woven bags, and rope. The leaves and berries are high in vitamin C, offering a natural boost to immune systems. The Coyote Willow grows commonly along many of the creeks and rivers here in Western Colorado. Ute people make willow bark tea for headaches, fever, pain, and inflammation; it contains salicylic acid, the main ingredient of aspirin. Another plant historically used by the Ute people is the Pinyon Pine, which offers both high calorie, nutritious nuts in the fall and pitch used for waterproofing water baskets. A common desert bush, Mormon Tea, is used as a medicinal drink to treat a cough or cold and also as a stimulant similar to caffeine. And of course, the Big Sagebrush, which is used as a medicine for stomach problems and infection, as well as a cleansing incense when burned in a variety of spiritual ceremonies. It is important to note that these plants should not be eaten unless you have specific knowledge on how to prepare them for consumption.
It is a joy to share this special plant knowledge with young people, and there are several places on the Western Slope that provide easy access to learning more about traditional uses of these native plants: The Ute Museum in Montrose, the Ute Learning and Ethnobotany Garden in Grand Junction, and our local educational arm of the Bureau of Land Management – Colorado Canyons Association.
The Ute Museum, located at 17253 Chipeta Road, Montrose, was established in 1956 near the ranch of Chief Ouray and his wife Chipeta. This year, the Ute Indian Museum and its partner museums across the state will provide virtual field trips that explore the state’s history, people, and environment in fun and educational ways. Aligned with Colorado Academic Standards, the programs are taught by talented educators in History Colorado museums all over the state. To learn more or to sign up, visit https://www.historycolorado.org/virtual-field-trips. The History Take Out program is changing its structure for school year 20-21. You can now rent one of the Ute Museum’s popular History Take Out kits to use remotely or in your school. Through objects, photographs, and a large walk-on map of the state, students will uncover the “footprints” various cultures and industries left behind. For more information on this program, visit https://www.historycolorado.org/ute-indian-museum-history-take-out. Open seven days a week, the Ute Museum has many award winning indoor and outdoor exhibits. Included in the outdoor exhibits is a native plant garden that combines the plant knowledge of the Mountain Ute Tribe, Southern Ute Tribe, and the Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray Reservation in Utah. More about the Ute Museum can be found at historycolorado.org/ute-indian-museum.
The Ute Learning Garden, also called the Clifford Duncan Memorial Garden, in Grand Junction is located at the CSU Extension office for the Tri-River Area at 2775 Highway 50. It is designed to familiarize students and visitors with native plants used by the Ute people, the movement of the Utes through various life zones, and the relationship between the Utes and the land. Working with the Ute Museum, the Ute Learning Garden was established in 2009 as part of the Ute Ethnobotany Project, seeking to preserve the traditional plant knowledge of the Ute culture. A brochure about the Ute Learning Garden can be found at https://tra.extension.colostate.edu/gardening-hort/. Interactive docent-led tours are available for groups of any size and age!
Colorado Canyons Association (CCA), in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management, is developing a “Junior Ranger Program” for the Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area, Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area, and the McInnis National Conservation Area. Learners of all ages can earn badges by completing a number of questions in the information packets, based on age. Each packet gives resources to use along the trail while learning about native plants, geology, and animal and human impact on these public lands. These Junior Ranger booklets will be available on-line and in packet form later this fall. More information can be found at https://www.coloradocanyonsassociation.org/, and a CCA video tour of the Eagle Rock Shelter can be found at https://youtu.be/1rc0rkVd7iE.
So, gather your young ones and share some valuable time together learning more about the original inhabitants of the Western Slope, the Utes, and their resourceful use of native plants at these amazing local resources!
Hiking with your children together with your family’s fury best friend provides a wonderful opportunity to not only get outside with your family, but also to teach children important lessons about responsibility, empathy, and appreciation for nature. When kids learn to watch and care for another being at a young age, it sets them up well for the responsibilities and teamwork that will help them be successful later in life. Hiking itself also helps kids develop resiliency, goal-setting, and a greater love for the outdoors, all of which are crucial to developing lifelong healthy habits.
Hiking with kids or with your dog, each add a layer of responsibility and in combination the two require preparation, situational awareness, and maybe some up-front training time to make sure everyone is ready for the adventure.
The first aspect worth considering is the training level of your dog. Is your dog already well-behaved? Is she a young, energetic puppy, or an old, mellow hound? Is he a small, easy-to-control toy breed, or a big, strong mass of muscle that requires a strong hand to maintain control of the leash if he sees something enticing? All of these considerations need to be thought out ahead of time to ensure your hike is safe for both your kids and your dog; these factors will determine how much dog responsibility you can hand over to your child. If needed, you may even consider working on specific obedience training with your dog before moving on to letting your child take the reins.
Secondly, consider your child’s traits and abilities. Are they very young, or already entering their teenage years? Are they a focused type, or easily distracted? Do they show much empathy, or are they still working on thinking about the needs of others besides themselves? Are they timid and easily frightened, or not, or possibly even too brave at times? If you give your child more than they can comfortably handle, it could put both them and the dog at risk.
After you’ve thought over these safety considerations, you’re ready to think about what kinds of responsibilities will be suitable considering the combination of the traits of your child and your dog, and where the dog’s needs may overlap with the child’s abilities and competencies.
If you have a very young child who’s just starting to understand caring for the family pet, they could be the designated water bearer (or if that’s too much, they can carry a light, collapsible water dish). It will be their job (with some oversight, of course) to determine when the dog might want a water break, and to provide it for them.
They could also be the treat giver—fill their pocket with some small treats, and let them decide when the dog has done something good that deserves a treat. Or, they can just give a treat whenever they feel like, just because it’s a nice thing to do!
For a slightly bigger kid, but one who isn’t quite ready to take control of the leash, they can work on a “heel” command. You hold the leash, but the dog heels between the two of you, and when he starts to stray it’s your child’s responsibility to give the “heel” command and remind them to get back to the correct spot. It could also be a chance to teach an automatic sit—every time you stop moving, your child can ask the dog to sit, and give them a treat when they do.
As you get to older youth (or if you have an extremely docile, well-trained dog) they can exclusively take responsibility for the family pet; holding the leash and practicing heel, asking the dog to sit when stopped, determining appropriate times for water breaks, or any other role you can think of that gives them more responsibilities to manage.
Giving a young person responsibilities regarding your pet’s care promotes their sense of leadership, asks them to think about the needs of the dog in addition to their own, and helps them learn to focus on a specific task over a long period of time, and even as other things are happening. All of these traits are very beneficial to their healthy development into responsible and thoughtful adults, and the best part is that they’re just having fun – hiking with the family pet, not even realizing the important lessons they’re learning in the process.
So pick out a fun, dog-friendly hike, saddle up your fury best friend, and give your kids some specific, caring roles to accomplish—it will be fun for everyone!