Tips to help you connect your family to nature!
Students use a nature guide to help identify the bird in hand. The Black Canyon Audubon Society volunteers host a learning station featuring taxidermy bird specimens to help students learn about bird adaptations to their environment and food sources, and how to identify birds likely observed in their neighborhoods during the North Fork Conservation Days (Paonia).
It’s a bit like speed dating for adults only this event involves quick learning interactions for kids. Springtime environmental education events are ways for elementary students to engage with natural resource experts to learn as much as possible in a short period. Each dedicated specialist has 20-25 minutes to engage elementary students about their area of expertise with hands-on activities and tips about their jobs. Students rotate through 8 to 9 stations in a day to learn about many topics, such as how forests contribute to healthy watersheds, how various aquatic insects indicate water quality, what kinds of items can be recycled, and much more. Montrose, Grand Junction, and the North Fork Valley all have festivals organized and sponsored by many organizations, partners, and volunteers who work together to provide this opportunity for the youth of these communities.
Presenters, mostly natural resources experts from various agencies, explain aspects of their field that most kids, and even some adults, never think about. As an added bonus, students get insights into various natural resource careers. “These can be defining moments for young minds that may influence their choices for a lifelong passion or a future career path,” says Anita Evans of Friends of Youth and Nature, one of the funding contributors to the event.
For the last 30 years, fourth graders from the Uncompahgre Valley have attended the Montrose event organized by the Shavano Conservation District. The Natural Resource Festival (previously known as the Water Festival) draws approximately 450 -500 students each year. This May students headed to Baldridge Park for a full day of fun learning activities. “Classes rotate through 9 learning stations, out of 29 featured at the festival, and engage in activities that demonstrate the connections between their lives and the resources they depend on. Activities are focused on all of our natural resources, with an emphasis on water connections in their lives,” explains Mendy Stewart, Education Specialist for the Shavano Conservation District, and festival organizer.
“The activities are meant to be ‘hands-on’, where kids really get in the mix of things,” Stewart added. A wide array of resource topics and activities are featured such as: demonstrating how river water is treated before being sent to our faucets, making play-dough watersheds and determining where the rivers and lakes form after a simulated rainstorm, making your own recycled paper, panning for silver while learning about Colorado’s Mining history with the Colorado Department of Reclamation and Mine Safety, practicing moving water through irrigation pipes with the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users, measuring the flow of a nearby stream with a Colorado Water Commissioner and putting their math minds to work figuring the rate of flow in cubic feet per second (cfs). Other activities help kids to learn things like “Leave No Trace” and how to minimize impacts when exploring nature.
The Colorado State Forestry Department sets up an experiment where students predict the amount and quality of rainwater runoff between two watersheds (actually dirt-filled culverts), one with plants and one with bare soil. After predicting the outcome of a rainstorm, the students learn how plant cover works to slow runoff, so it can be absorbed within the watershed. “This is a huge benefit to water quality, catching soil and pollutants before they reach rivers,” explains Tanya Banulis, Colorado State forester. Dave Dearstyne, retired Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) soil scientist, focuses students’ attention on detecting some of the millions of microorganisms living in our soil. Who would think to look that closely at dirt?
This event involves a lot of planning and behind-the scenes work such as pre-festival classroom presentations and festival logistics. The festival's successes are attributed to the dedication of Stewart and the supporting host agency, the Shavano Valley Conservation District. Festival supplies, student transportation, and festival planning are made possible through matching funds to the Shavano Conservation District received from the Colorado State Conservation Board. The goal of this program is to help Conservation Districts in Colorado implement conservation projects and educational activities. In addition to the festival, the funds have also made conservation education available to San Miguel, Ouray, and Montrose County students. The activities also include source pollution presentations, 9th grade Mancos Shale Soil Salinity Experiments, and 5th and 6th grade conservation poster contests.
Stewart says these events, “...inspire learning opportunities for Western Slope students who will be part of an outdoor savvy generation. We hope they will be empowered to use what they learn to influence future decisions about land and water uses that benefit our planet now and in the future.”
Some kids take time to reflect about what they learned during the festivals; others are super excited and cannot stop talking about the day. Parents or relatives can encourage more discussion or help reinforce significant concepts kids learned. Ask your child what learning station impressed them the most? Here are a few questions that will help you start a discussion with your student:
What can you tell me about the Gunnison or Colorado River’s journey to the ocean?
What type of water bugs will you find in your favorite fishing spot?
How fast is the river near you flowing this spring?
What are the components of a beehive?
How can you harness solar power? Can you use it to make a fruit smoothie or baked good?
What should you put into your community’s recycle bins?
What foods are produced locally and where can you find them?
Friends of Youth and Nature is a non-profit promoting opportunities for youth and families to get outside, experience outdoor activities, and explore nature. Your donations as well as grants received by FOYAN from the Gunnison Basin Roundtable (DNR- Colorado Water Conservation Board) and Forever Our Rivers (Connecting Rivers and Communities) have enabled FOYAN to contribute funding for these festivals.
Rocks, Dinosaur Bones and Sea Fossils: Exploring Our Local Geology by Anne Janik
Searching for fossils in the sedimentary rock layers at the Dominquez-Escalante National Conservation Area located between Grand Junction and Delta. (Photo Credit: Anita Evans).
What kid hasn’t had some sort of rock collection? Discovering hidden gems is always a treat. Western Colorado is perfect for exploring geology with your kids. Look around − there is evidence of eons of geological happenings everywhere!
Geology is an Earth science that investigates how the Earth formed and changes over time. Through studying rock layers, geologists learn about the past and reconstruct the puzzle of Earth’s history. The Earth is a mind boggling 4.5 billion years old! This ruler helps to grasp the age of the Earth. Each inch on the ruler stands for 375 million years (375,000,000 years). Because the numbers are so large, scientists use abbreviations for a billion years (BY) and a million years (MY). Major events in the Earth’s history are shown above the ruler and geologic ages (eons and eras) are marked below the ruler.
It might appear that the Earth’s surface never changes, but it is changing slowly all the time. Sediments, such as sand grains and clay, are deposited horizontally and then squeezed down by more sediment deposited on top. Over time, these layers turn into sedimentary rock with the oldest layers at the bottom and younger layers on top. These rock layers constantly change over time, and with heat and pressure form metamorphic and igneous (volcanic) rock. Melting or molten rock below the Earth’s surface builds up and breaks through older rock layers to form volcanoes. Metamorphic rock is formed when volcanic or sedimentary rock layers are buried and their structure changes under pressure - this is how diamonds are formed! Earthquakes occur when the Earth’s crust moves on the molten mantle like meringue on the surface of a lemon meringue pie. Cracks in the crust, called faults, can cause the Earth’s crust to move, fold, and tilt through a process called plate tectonics. Colliding plates can create mountain ranges and reshape the Earth’s continents. As the plates slowly shift across the globe, volcanoes and earthquakes represent the immense power at play. External events such as landslides and water or wind erosion wear down mountains, depositing the sediments downstream.
Check out the last 1.6 inches of the 12-inch ruler (the Phanerozoic Eon). We know more about this time than any other in Earth’s history and we know that life was abundant! Many strange creatures swam, crawled, and flew across this corner of Colorado. The story of these ancient creatures and where they lived are told by their fossils or impressions, bones, footprints, shells, petrified wood, and even fossilized feces, called coprolites, left behind in the rock layers.
The present is the key to the past – this is the first lesson in geology, which means geologic events we observe today took place in the past. Volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, ocean tides, winds, gravity, as well as sedimentation and erosion likely behaved similarly throughout time in shaping our landscapes. Glacial ice advances then melts; wind and water erode mountains until they are flat; valleys fill with rock and debris washed down from highlands. The Earth is and was a very dynamic place!
Let’s look a little closer at Colorado’s geologic history. Most of Western Colorado lies within the Colorado Plateau. This high-desert formed millions of years ago when tectonic plates slowly pushed together, uplifting stacked layers of sand, silt, and mud to form the Plateau. Ancient volcanic mountains, plateaus, buttes, deeply carved canyons, and stunning color ranges are the defining characteristics of this region. The plateau is dominated by high mountains gashed by river canyons, dry washes, and intermittent stream beds. Near the southern end of the Plateau, the Grand Canyon has exposed rocks with ages that span almost 2 billion years.
Colorado National Monument was established because of its unique geology. Situated on the Uncompahgre Plateau (part of the larger Colorado Plateau), the monument was shaped over millions of years into colorful, wind-eroded sandstone formations, towering monoliths, and steep-walled canyons. The deeper rock layers span billions of years, with sedimentary layers covering the bottom-most metamorphic layer. Erosion continues to change this landscape with each storm creating wind- and water-sculpted rock formations with shape-inspired names like Window Rock, Pipe Organ, and Sentinel Spire.
The geologic story of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison is one of uplift, volcanism, and the erosive force of water. Large volcanoes erupted on either side of the uplift about 30 million years ago, burying it in volcanic rock. As early as 2 million years ago, the Gunnison River began flowing in force through the soft volcanic rock. Over time, river flows eroded a deep canyon in the metamorphic rock. The canyon, at 2700 feet deep, is one of the deeper canyons in North America.
Another local geologic hot spot is located just outside of Delta Colorado. In the early 1970’s, 150-million year old fossils from the Jurassic period were found in the Dry Mesa Dinosaur Quarry on the Uncompahgre Plateau. One of the most prolific sites of its time, the quarry revealed a unique chain of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock (Morrison Formation) known for its high yield of dinosaur fossils. What a yield! Over 4,000 bones from 30 different species were unearthed in the Quarry including two new species of dinosaur! Check out this informative activity booklet about the quarry finds developed by the Forest Service: The Jurassic World and Other Exciting Times in the Geological Past of Colorado, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forests.
The geologic past of Colorado is a dynamic story and you don’t have to travel far to observe it. Start with a visit to the Dinosaur Journey Museum in Fruita for interactive displays such as an earthquake simulator, a sandbox for making your own dinosaur tracks, and a “quarry site” where kids can uncover actual Jurassic dinosaur bones. There are over 15,000 fossil specimens in its collections. Design your own scavenger hunt to see if your child can find fossils reflecting our region's warm, moist environment (ferns) or when our town was at the bottom of a vast sea (shark teeth and fish fossils). Colorado has been at the bottom of an ocean several times, has been covered by ice, and has seen the rise and erosion of vast mountain ranges long before the Rocky Mountains of today were formed. The rock layers and fossil collections are there to demonstrate it, you just have to get out there and take a closer look!
Here are a few links for fun geology activities for kids:
Spring is the perfect time for canyon hiking. There are plenty of canyons to explore in our local National Conservation Areas (NCAs), our nearby National Parks and Monuments and the Bureau of Land Management Public Lands. Kids love to scramble around the warm rocks looking for cracks and crannnies to explore. This one looks like a perfect fit! (Hannah Freed, Photo Credit: Christine Freed)
Every day the weather seems to be gradually getting a little warmer (in between those spontaneous Colorado snowstorms, at least), and that can only mean one thing—spring is near! The transition from winter to summer activities will be here before you know it, and it’s time to start planning some excursions with your little ones as the trails dry and the warm sun comes out. The benefits of getting outside are numerous, from mental health, to physical health, to just having fun together as a family. Here are a few quick and easy hiking trails that you can enjoy with your whole crew:
The Lunch Loops are always a crowd favorite. Less than 10 minutes from downtown Grand Junction, and with ample parking, access doesn’t get much easier than this. The most accessible trail is of course the paved one—the Monument Trail runs alongside Monument Road all the way from the intersection with Broadway up to the Lunch Loops parking lot, and in 2024 it will be extended all the way up to South Camp Road.
If you’d rather get off the pavement and onto dirt trails instead, there are numerous possibilities at the Lunch Loops. For the very easiest hikes stick close to the parking lot on trails like Short and Cranky or the Kids Meal Loop. For a more strenuous hike head up Tabeguache for an out and back, or take Hop Skip and Jump to Big Sister for a short loop, with a few steeper parts, but rewarding views. Wherever you hike at Lunch Loops just be sure to keep an eye out for mountain bikers and dogs, as there are always a fair number of both on these well-loved local trails.
Heading up towards the Colorado National Monument, a very popular option for a short hike is the Devils Kitchen Trail. Note that there is an entrance fee required, since this is within the Colorado National Monument. This trail can get crowded, but unlike the Lunch Loops, you don’t need to worry about dogs or bikes on the trail since neither are allowed within the Monument. The trail is just under 2 miles, and it’s an out and back (so you’ll come back the same way you headed in); there is some mild elevation gain, but it is very approachable for most casual hikers. If you make it up the full length of the trail, you will be rewarded with beautiful views and some really cool rock formations!
If you’re looking for a hike with a big payoff for your mileage, the Mica Mines Trail should rank high on your list of must-dos. Another out and back trail, this starts at the Bangs Canyon Trailhead up Little Park Road, and takes you about 1.3 miles in (one way) to a very cool historic mica and quartz mine. The glittering, shimmering mica in the rock amphitheater formed by the long-closed mining operation is sure to be a huge hit with the kids! The trail is pretty flat the whole way, so it’s a very easy hike for anyone to enjoy. By the time you’ve reached the mine and made it back to the car, you’ll have hiked about 2.6 miles on flat terrain, which should be approachable for most families. The mine was operated up until the 1950s, and the mica that they were mining at the time was used for manufacturing paints and electrical insulation, so you can build a little history lesson into your excursion!
One of the coolest hikes in the Grand Junction area is the Monument Canyon Trail, with the added benefit of getting to experience the Colorado National Monument without having to pay the entry fee (remember to leave the dogs at home since they aren’t allowed in the Monument). The parking lot for accessing this trail can be found by searching for Monument Canyon Trailhead, as it enters the Colorado National Monument interior, rather than taking you along the upper rim of the Monument. This one can be a bit of a step up in difficulty, being quite a bit longer than the other options, but you can always turn around part way if you don’t want to hike the whole ~5 mile loop. If you do make it all the way, though, the payoff is huge—literally! Aside from a high likelihood of getting to see some desert bighorn sheep, this trail leads, you right up to the incredible Independence Monument rock formation, which towers 450 feet above the desert floor. This formation was first climbed all the way back in 1911 by John Otto, founder of the Colorado National Monument, and shortly thereafter by Beatrice Farnham, to whom Otto was briefly married. If you look for a large, slightly sloping flat rock a few hundred yards northeast of the rock tower, you can still faintly see a giant inscription of the first line of the Declaration of Independence, which was carved into the rock by Farnham.
Venturing a little further afield, the Dominguez Canyon trails can offer a real wilderness experience. About 20 miles south of Grand Junction, the trails here offer a long, flat hike that will take you as far as you’d like to go. The entire Big Dominquez and Little Dominguez Canyon Loop stretches for an astonishing 39 miles, but the vast majority of hikers just travel in as far as they want to go for the day, and then head back out. Little Dominguez Canyon has some very cool historical features, if you’re willing to do about 7 miles of hiking in total. Around 3.5 miles in, a homestead from 1911 has been preserved by the BLM and offers a fascinating look at life over 110 years ago. The house is remarkably well preserved, and the skeletons of old farming equipment are still dotted around the property. It’s really something worth seeing! The whole of Little Dominguez Canyon is beautiful, with astounding rock formations throughout, and it’s not at all uncommon to see desert bighorn sheep roaming along the hillsides.
From the very easiest of hikes, to something a little more adventurous, but still approachable, this should give you a good start as you begin planning for some warm spring days hiking and enjoying nature with your family. Start with something easy and work your way up to the longer hikes, and before you know it you and your kids will be skipping up the most beautiful and rewarding trails on the Western Slope. Get out there and explore, spring is almost here!
Children’s overall health is positively affected by connections to outdoor spaces. This is essential for a healthy balance with technology use.
For the first time in history, most of our children are growing without a real connection to nature. Nature-deficit disorder was first described in 2005 in the book, Last Child in The Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Nature-deficit disorder isn’t a medical diagnosis, but it is a term recognizing an urgent problem. Richard Louv coined the term, and it was recognized by many as a call to action – to save children from losing a connection to nature.
Urbanization and technological advancements are a trend, but the resulting gap between the natural world and children creates concern. Since the recognition of nature deficit disorder, numerous scientific studies have shown that disconnection from nature can result in diminished use of the senses, higher obesity rates, attention difficulties, and a range of illnesses. On average, children ages 8-12 spend 4 to 6 hours a day viewing a screen, and teenagers can spend up to 9 hours with screens, while spending less than an hour outdoors. Regular screen time and deprivation from recreating outdoors leads to mood swings, lower grades, sleep deprivation, a poor self-image, screen dependency, irregular psychological shifts, depression, and lower cognitive function.
Virtual realities can affect a child’s demeanor and outlook on life. One of the goals of social media apps is to maximize the time spent on that interface. Children are immensely vulnerable to this and are susceptible to making screen time a priority in their day. Conflicts over screen time are common between parents and their children - as a parent you aren’t alone regarding this issue! Unfortunately, these conflicts can affect the level of parent engagement with their kids.
Children who engage in too much screen time become less in tune with and more detached from their surroundings. Extreme situations can lead to depersonalization-derealization disorder, a serious medical illness. Children indulging in heavy social media may have reduced creativity and, decision-making ability, and an inability to have authentic interactions.
There is power in conscious decision-making. Parents, relatives, friends, and mentors can help kids make healthy decisions about how they can feed their bodies and brains. Alternatives to watching a video, show or playing a game might include a walk to a park, a play date in a neighbor’s backyard, building a fort, climbing up a tree or a spontaneous scavenger hunt!
One solution is in the magic experiences outdoor spaces can bring. A study in the journal Environment and Behavior demonstrates that children who spend even short periods outdoors see a reversal in fatigue and concentration issues. Indulging in outdoor activities boosts children’s morale, energy levels, perception, and drive. Kids’ experiences recreating in the outdoors gives them a chance to look far beyond a screen and to become immersed in what it is like to live, and belong in the natural world.
Here in Western Colorado, we have many organizations and passionate teachers who are more than ready to assist kids and their families with becoming familiar with the great outdoors. As a parent or guardian, are you looking for a few ideas to encourage your kids to take it outside? Here are a few creative outdoor activities you can do with your kids: Generation Wild suggests 20 ideas for 20 minutes- the magic number for helping kids feel better, 100 things to do before you are 12, backyard hacks – the best things to happen in the backyard since the invention of the BBQ. These ideas are in Spanish and English. There are many fun ways to engage your child with nature. How about sharing the experiences of a new outdoor activity together as a family such as snowshoeing, skiing, or building snow caves? The Nature Connection is hosting a free pop up ski lending day along with lessons on Feb 11 at County Line Trailhead on the Grand Mesa. Your kids will love the extra attention and encouragement of a shared experience with you along with the laughter and conversation. Your kid’s mental and physical health and your family relationships are sure to benefit!
Depersonaliztion experiences during Covid-19 lockdown
Tree School Will Cure Your ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’
Health Benefits of Nature
Why It’s So Hard to Feel Like You’re a Good Parent When It Comes to Screen Time… and What You Can Do About It
We are so lucky to live in Colorado, where there is such a wide variety of outdoor opportunities for youth close to home in local state parks and in our vast open landscapes across the state. This past week, the Colorado Equity Grant Board awarded various Colorado nonprofits a total of $1.3 million to help more kids and families experience the outdoors. Here on the Western Slope, Friends of Youth and Nature was awarded a generous grant of $67,180 towards our efforts in getting local youth into outdoor activities. This gift to our citizens is an effort to increase access to the outdoors for our youth and instill stewardship practices of our state's outstanding natural resources in the next generation. In the long run, this investment will increase the health of Coloradans and our communities. The personal benefits gained from outdoor experiences is not a novel concept; there is a plethora of research proving that outdoor activities overall increase individual well-being.
According to Dr. Constance Scharff in Psychology Today, “Children are increasingly spending time indoors engaged with various forms of electronic devices: phones, computers, tablets, televisions, and gaming consoles. There is significant data indicating that time spent outdoors, whether in play, outdoor education or recreation, or even gardening, can have a real and positive impact on mental and physical well-being.”
Author Dr. John J. Ratey in his book, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, discusses how exercise influences the brain on a cellular level. He also talks about how lack of real play does hurt children because they need to use their imaginations to develop creative thinking and problem solving skills. Many outdoor activities require kids to work together and communicate in order for everyone to have fun or to accomplish a common goal. He also describes a bacterium in the soil that increases serotonin in the brain and improves mood. Who knew that getting dirty is a good thing!
There are many activities to do outdoors, including hiking, camping, rafting, paddle boarding, rock climbing, skiing, sledding, orienteering, horseback riding, and raising animals, just to name a few. Some examples of activities and research-proven benefits include:
Gardening – Teaches patience, perseverance and empathy (and don’t forget that special bacterium that increases serotonin levels). According to Dr. Scharff, gardening teaches children about the food cycle and nutrition, provides important life skills, and creates opportunities for children to learn competence, resilience, and community building. There are Junior Master Gardener programs that can be integrated into school curricula or used at home or with youth groups. Children’s gardening programs ignite a passion for good food, provide opportunities for people of all ages to work together, and develop important life skills that can lead to a lifetime of healthy choices. Food produced may be used in home or school settings, or canned for use in the off-season, and the excess can be donated to local food banks.
Walking and talking − Builds conversation skills and helps with the flow of creative thinking. Just taking a long walk outdoors with a friend has many benefits. State and national parks offer a wide variety of outdoor activities for youth and families. These are not necessarily just hikes or camping, but interactive wildlife activities, archaeological explorations, storytelling times, and much more. The park service often coordinates activities and provides special programming for youth groups. Every Kid in a Park is a National Park Service Program to encourage youth visitation to national parks. Every Fourth grader gets a yearlong free family pass to any national park. Visit their website to find out more, and encourage your kids to become junior rangers (www.nps.gov/kids/every-kid-outdoors.htm). Public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have mostly free access with a variety of trails for mountain biking, hiking, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
Bird Watching − Watching any wildlife has its benefits! Observation can help build attention skills while also practicing mindfulness and coping strategies. It also stirs a sense of curiosity in young people. Many birding organizations provide activities and/or mentors to teach children about bird watching. Check into your local Audubon chapter, Colorado Field Ornithologist groups, or the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. National and state parks also offer nature programs that are scheduled or can be requested by contacting them. Audubon Adventure for Kids highlights curriculum and related DIY activities that can be done at home or in a yard or park (www.audubon.org/get-outside/activities/audubon-for-kids). Scavenger hunts are a great way to get kids excited about exploring nature and improve their observation and attention skills. Looking for a bird nest, a cactus flower, a cool rock, or an animal track can be very exciting. Search the internet for nature/outdoor scavenger hunts; you will be surprised with how many come up.
Horses − Studies have shown that working with horses helps children, teens, and adults make significant improvements in the areas of confidence, anger management, empathy, impulse control, self-esteem, PTSD, anxiety, and overall emotional well-being. Did you know that horses can be an emotional mirror to ourselves? Research has also shown that horses recognize and react to human emotions from our body language and facial expressions. Since they are herd and prey animals, they have a strong emotional sense, reflect and respond to the behavior of other horses in the herd. Even playing with your family pet or walking your beloved dog has huge benefits. Speaking of the influence animals have on youth, Meet Wilder! This is a very engaging video you can watch with your kids featuring Wilder. It will inspire them to go outdoors and play (www.generationwild.com/).
Are you looking for something that will help your child build social interaction skills, confidence, problem solving skills, independence, creativity, and emotional well-being? Take them outside! No matter what activity they do outdoors, just getting them outside on a regular basis has so many benefits to them, their families, and our communities.
Outdoor activities can play a crucial role in building resiliency and promoting mental well-being in our youth. A group of kids try a new outdoor endeavor at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.
The end-of-year giving season is in full swing, and you’re probably hearing a lot of appeals from nonprofits to help fund their community impacts. There are so many crucial needs in our area, all of which are eminently deserving of your support; in a perfect world we would be able to help with all of the causes, but in the real world you’ll need to make choices about where to contribute your year-end donations in a way that aligns with your ideals, priorities, and your hopes for the future.
I’d like to make a case for the importance of getting western slope kids into outdoor educational and recreational programs as a long-term solution for many of the issues facing our youth, and our community at large.
What impact does an early introduction to the outdoors have on who a child will become as an adult, and how are they affected physically, mentally, emotionally—and even morally as they grow up? As it turns out, we can directly connect childhood exposure to outdoor activities with positive long-term outcomes.
It’s no secret that children are frequently neglecting more physical, outdoor forms of play in favor of the digital world—reducing kids’ screen time is often a major struggle for parents. Computers, mobile devices, and video games are passive forms of entertainment, and they don’t call for physical coordination, strength, endurance, or any of the other attributes necessary for a healthy body. Outdoor play, on the other hand, promotes all of these things, and is a natural method of encouraging physical activity in young people.
A 2015 metanalysis of studies regarding the effects of time spent outdoors on children found, “outdoor time is positively related to physical activity and negatively related to sedentary behavior in children aged 3–12 years'' (Gray, 2015). The more outdoor time children have the more physical activity they take part in and, conversely, the less sedentary behavior they display.
Many people spend time outdoors because it brings them a sense of happiness and well-being. If adults who have grown accustomed to the ways of the modern world still need to get away to nature every now and then to stay happy, surely children must benefit from these quieter natural spaces as well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 2018 study showed that the more time children spend in nature and the greater sense of connection they personally feel with nature, the less likely they are to experience psychosomatic symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, difficulty sleeping, headache, stomach ache, backache, and other physical afflictions. The benefits start with as little as 30 minutes of outdoor activity per week (Piccininni, 2018).
As we consider ways to address the increasing prevalence of mental health challenges in young people, including a disproportionately high suicide rate in our area, outdoor activities can play a crucial role in building resiliency and promoting mental well-being in our youth.
Physical activity, cognitive development, emotional well-being—these things are relatively easy to quantify in research. But what about something like the desire to preserve our natural areas, or an understanding of the importance of good stewardship practices for our public lands? Can we quantify these outcomes?
Though it’s more difficult to show a correlation between time spent outdoors during childhood and an individual’s likelihood to become a good environmental steward, it has been shown that the amount of time spent outdoors has a direct correlation with a child’s feelings of connection with nature. This sense of connection with the natural world then has a direct influence on behaviors related to environmental stewardship in children such as, “conserving water, turning out lights, recycling, talking about the environment, and picking up litter” (Andrejewski, 2011). The more time we can get younger generations to spend in the outdoors, the greater sense of connection they’ll feel with nature, and the more likely they will become involved with environmental stewardship and preservation.
As you consider how to distribute your year-end donations in our community in a way that most aligns with your values, know that when you donate to organizations that provide opportunities for local kids to get outdoors for science education and recreational field trips, you’re not only directly contributing to their physical and mental well-being—you’re also helping to raise a generation that will value our natural environment and ensure the preservation of public lands for years to come.
Friends of Youth and Nature (FOYAN) is a non-profit organization that promotes opportunities for youth and families to go outside, experience outdoor activities and explore nature. To contribute through Colorado Gives Day and multiply the impact of your donation, please visit https://www.coloradogives.org/organization/friendsofyouthandnature
Andrejewski, Robert, et al. “An Examination of Children's Outdoor Time, Nature Connection, and Environmental Stewardship.” ScholarWorks@UMass Amherst, Proceedings of the Northeastern Recreation Research Symposium, 2011, https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=nerr.
Gray, Casey, et al. “What Is the Relationship between Outdoor Time and Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Physical Fitness in Children? A Systematic Review.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 12, no. 6, 8 June 2015, pp. 6455–6474., doi:10.3390/ijerph120606455.
Piccininni, Caroline, et al. “Outdoor Play and Nature Connectedness as Potential Correlates of Internalized Mental Health Symptoms among Canadian Adolescents.” Preventive Medicine, vol. 112, July 2018, pp. 168–175., doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2018.04.020.
Exploring Nature through your Sense of Smell by Anne Janik &Lauren Ruddell, PhD.
Sniffing around the garden! Students from Delta Country are enjoying the organic smell of soil and herbs in their school garden.
The sound of leaves crunching as you walk through the forest, the feeling of the warm sun on your face, the sight of a mule deer, the smell of a nearby campfire, and the taste of a freshly picked tart apple engage our five senses − sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Together these senses help us get a clear picture of what is happening around us.
Have you ever taken a whiff of some smell that transported you back to a childhood memory? Maybe the smell of basil makes you think of your grandmother’s garden, or the smell of a campfire makes you think of a memorable camping trip. Does the smell of freshly cut grass or alfalfa confirm that summer is here? What smells remind you of autumn − the pungent organic smell of decomposing leaves in the forest, the fresh, moist scent of an oncoming snowstorm or the smell of roasted chili peppers?
Smell is an intriguing sense because of its wiring in our brains. Scents stimulate our olfactory cells, travel on a fast track through our brain’s superhighway of connectivity, and bypass the brain’s switchboard (the thalamus). Smell stimuli go directly to the region of our brain (hypothalamus) involved in detecting threats and stress responses, and hormones are quickly issued to the appropriate places. By going directly to this brain region, our body responds faster to smells, according to Johan Lundström, a neuropsychologist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden (The Scientist: exploring science and inspiring innovation). Certain smells can quickly trigger a physical reaction within us. For instance, smells can make us feel sick or warn us of danger (fire), or can make us feel hungry if we smell something yummy.
Smell signals also go directly to another region of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for forming and recalling memories. A sense of smell is the only fully developed sense a fetus has in the womb, and it is the one that is the most developed in a child until the age of around 10, when sight takes over. A prominent aroma researcher explained that because smell and emotion are stored as one memory, childhood tends to be the period in which you create the basis for smells you will love or hate for the rest of your life. And, like so many things in life, the sense of smell is impacted by aging. Although the cells that make up the olfactory system are replaced as they age and die, just like any cell, the rate of replacement slows after 50 years of age. To keep that keen sense of smell as you age, your olfactory cells need regular workouts, in terms of exposure and variety. It’s a “use it or lose it” kind of thing.
Have you ever felt more calm or relaxed when you breathed in the wonderful smells of a pine forest or the fragrant smells of a flower garden? Studies have also shown that the smells of nature are linked to lower physiological stress (The Scientist: Exploring Life, Inspiring innovation). Even though the sense of smell for adults often operates in the background behind other senses, natural odor stimuli has a swift and direct effect on our parasympathetic system, the processes that allow us to rest and digest. It has the greatest impact on lowering blood pressure and other physiological stress reduction factors.
Our noses can distinguish more than 1 trillion scents, according to new research by the National Institute of Health. The findings show that our sense of smell is far more sensitive than previously thought.
You and your children take in many different smells every single second of every single day. How often do you really consider what you smell, especially while you are exploring the great outdoors with your children?
Here are a few suggestions on how to get your kids to use their noses in nature:
Shooting for the moon is a phrase that implies something is an unattainable target—but is that true? NASA is shooting for the moon right now with their Artemis 1, the first of the Orion Spacecraft. This unmanned moon launch is the first of many scheduled flights that will orbit the Moon and send several satellites out to collect data for future manned missions taking astronauts to the Moon’s surface. The subsequent Artemis missions will be the first manned flights to the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972, 50 years ago. These series of flights are intended to set up a lunar station for sustainable exploration beyond the Earth’s orbit—the possibilities are endless!
Reaching the moon by spaceship is only our most recent relationship with our orbiting orb. The Moon has played an important part in our lives as humans for millennia. For most of our history, the Moon was the only source of illumination at night. It helped travelers navigate, and enabled people to work at night. It has signified wisdom, intuition, birth, death, reincarnation, and fertility, and has long been integrally tied to farming. The first astronomers created calendars from changes they saw in the Moon and linked those changes to the four seasons, crop planting, and harvesting. Many turns of phrase refer to the Moon, such as “once in a blue moon”, “many moons ago”, “promise the moon”, “over the moon”, “baying at the moon”, and let us not forget about honeymoons! We eat Moon Pies and look for the Man in the Moon, listen to songs like “Moon River” and read books to our children such as “Goodnight Moon”. Its magnificent presence in the sky has permeated our lives on every level.
So, what do we see when we look up into the sky and see the Moon in its various stages? First, we need to know that the Moon revolves, or travels, around the Earth every 28 days, just like the Earth revolves around the Sun every 365 days. As the Moon revolves around the Earth it also rotates on its axis just one time during that 28 days, which means we always see the same side of the Moon. The Earth, on the other hand, rotates on its axis once a day—or 365 times in one year—as it travels around the sun.
Why then do we see the Moon in its different phases or shapes? Sometimes we see a full moon, sometimes only a sliver or crescent moon based on the Sun’s reflection off the lunar surface. The Moon’s phases are created by the position of the Moon relative to the Earth and the Sun. A new Moon occurs when the Moon, Earth, and Sun all lie approximately in the same line with the Moon between the Earth and Sun from the Earth’s perspective. The side of the moon facing the Earth is completely dark because it has no sun reflecting off it. On the other hand, a full Moon occurs when the Moon’s revolution around the Earth puts it on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun. The Sun’s rays then reflect off the full lunar surface that faces the Earth.
The eight basic phases of the Moon can be seen in this graphic:
There are four primary phases: new Moon, first quarter, full Moon, and third quarter. The secondary phases are waxing crescent, waxing gibbous, waning gibbous, and waning crescent. Waxing means an apparent growth of the Moon’s image each night, always getting larger from right to left. Waning means the image is shrinking, which also occurs from right to left as you see the Moon’s image in the sky.
This graphic shows the position of the Moon and the Sun during each of the Moon’s phases and the Moon as it appears from Earth during each phase. Not to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
One of the most interesting concepts behind the Moon’s phases is that the Moon, along with every other object in the sky, is in constant motion. The light we see from the Moon is a reflection of our Sun’s rays based on its position in the sky relative to Earth, not from Earth’s shadow as some believe. Also, its rotation around the Earth affects more than just our language and farming rhythms. The Moon’s diameter is about one fourth the of the size of the Earth’s width, making it Earth’s largest and only natural satellite. Its huge mass results in gravity that tugs at the Earth’s oceans to move in a pattern we call the tides. As the Earth rotates the water bulges out on the side closest to the Moon and the side farthest from the Moon, creating a high tide. As the Earth continues to rotate through its 24 hour cycle most shorelines experience two high and two low tides per day, spaced 12 hours apart.
Being Earth’s closest neighbor in space, it is no wonder the Moon plays such an important part in our everyday lives. Learning the science behind the Moon, its phases, and its effect on our planet is just the first step to learning about what lies beyond its orbit. From Apollo 8 to Artemis 1—to the Moon we go!
Cody Davis is a long-time participant in Grand Valley Adaptive Climbing Club, and has helped to create community with newer participants. Photo Credit: Sloane Milstein
Playing outside is an important part of growing up—there’s a wealth of evidence that time spent outdoors increases resiliency, promotes mental health, and teaches children skills that will help them grow into happy and healthy adults. If your child has a disability, though, it can be challenging to find outdoor activities that are accessible to their needs, and especially group activities that allow opportunities for important social connections and peer support.
We are fortunate to have a number of organizations serving the Grand Junction area that specialize in facilitating affordable activities for kids with disabilities, and their families. This is not an exhaustive list; as you get involved with the local community of adaptive athletes, you’ll find many more opportunities beyond those listed below. Here are a few places to start:
Colorado Discover Ability (CDA) is a well-known local non-profit that specializes in year-round adaptive outdoor recreation programs. In summer they organize rafting trips, cycling, and summer camps that are accessible to all. In winter they pivot to adaptive snowsports with well-qualified instructors who can teach kids to use a sit ski, ski with a vision impairment, and many other types of adaptive snowsports. More information is available at cdagj.org, and CDA also has numerous volunteer opportunities available if you’d like to help out.
Ever heard of hippotherapy? No, there are no hippos involved—it’s actually therapeutic horseback riding, and local organization Harmony Acres Equestrian Center offers this service to both kids and adults with disabilities from their location in Loma. Through their therapeutic horseback riding programs, they use “specially trained instructors and well-trained horses, along with a team of volunteers, [to] work with individuals to target goals that improve physical movements and development, speech, emotional/behavioral regulation, core strength, and mood.” They offer their services on a sliding scale, with the goal of making this unique and wonderful recreation/therapy available to all who might need it. Visit them at harmonyacresec.org to learn more. Other local providers include Grand Valley Equine Assisted Learning Center in Fruita (gvequineassistedlearningcenter.org), Metaphorse in Montrose (metaphorse.com), Dare to Dream in Delta County (daretodreamincorporated.com), and 4 Leg Adventures in Delta County (4legadventures.com) also offer various equine therapy sessions.
Sports are an important part of growing up for a lot of kids, and the social skills and support received through team sports can help your children grow into well-rounded adults. Our local Challenger Baseball team makes the sport of baseball accessible to all kids ages 8 to 18 (or up to 21 if still enrolled in school), with any type of developmental or physical disability. They also get to hang out with the JUCO players once a year, which is a big deal for the baseball fans! Find out more at challengerbaseball.net
If you’re looking for an adventurous (but safe!) activity, check out the Grand Valley Adaptive Climbing Club (GVACC). Accessible to kids and adults of all abilities, this climbing program is prepared with the equipment and expertise necessary to get anyone to the top of the climbing wall. While the events take place indoors, once you and your child are more comfortable with climbing it will allow you to pursue outdoor climbing programs through organizations like Adaptive Adventures, which usually organizes at least one ice climbing trip each year in Ouray. GVACC typically meets on the third Thursday of every month at the Grand Valley Climbing gym on 25 Road, but the schedule can fluctuate—check the Facebook page for the exact date each month: facebook.com/GrandValleyAdaptiveClimbingClub
Regardless of the type of activity your children are interested in, we’re very lucky to have a lot of organizations doing great work in our community to make athletics and the outdoors available to every kid, of any ability level. Take advantage of all that’s offered, and help your kids grow into happy and healthy adults surrounded by a network of their peers!
Many little hands release a Wilson’s warbler after it was banded at Ridgway State Park. Students observe and assist bird banders as part of the Rocky Mountain Bird Banding Project at Ridgway and at the Audubon Nature Center at Connected Lakes in Grand Junction. The banding operation occurs annually in early September.
Chick-a-de-de-de-de, chickadee in the tree, I see a chickadee, chickadee in the tree.
Making up quick songs while hiking with little kids is a fun way to connect and remember birds. Chickadees are a favorite for kids and adults of all ages because the words we use to describe their song is also their name!
Another fun bird call to listen for is the Ruby Crowned Kinglet. It is called the “cheeseburger bird” because the mnemonic for its song is “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger”. Mnemonics (words to help us remember) are fun and easy to learn. Visit Augubon.org to learn some tricks on remembering bird songs. (https://tinyurl.com/remembering-bird-calls)
How do you spark that interest in nature with your kids? Summer is a great time to start thinking of ways to get your young ones out there and engaged with the outdoors. It could be as simple as buying a pair of binoculars and a basic bird book, or taking walks in the woods to just look and listen. Get them prepped with anticipation by going to the library and checking out some books about nature. There are many children’s books that can introduce kids to the wonder and beauty of nature. Some even provide a variety of cultural interests. One example is a children's book about the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler and how it became part of a movement to embrace Indigenous languages in Mexico (tinyurl.com/the-tale-of-one-tiny-songbird). Image courtesy of Audubon Society.
(image courtesy of audubon.org)
Audubon is all about getting out there and appreciating nature and birds! Their website has so much information; it is worth a browse to get a few DIY summer camp ideas. Their page - JUST FOR KIDS! (Or kids at heart) “aims to bring together activities from across Audubon’s national network of environmental educators, including the classroom curriculum Audubon Adventures, plus related DIY activities and content from Audubon’s editors.” (tinyurl.com/audubon-afterschool-fun). There are even events for family participation – to help you and your kids contribute to citizen science projects. Here is an example of a virtual event on the site: tinyurl.com/audubon-afterschool-fun
One doesn’t need to be an expert; maybe just being a “student” along with a child is a fun way to learn and bond together. The more kids love and understand our natural world, the more they will want to protect it. www.audubon.org/news/easy-ways-get-kids-birding
Cornell Lab of Ornithology also has many resources on their website. Check out their bird sleuthing curricula (www.birdsleuth.net) which uses bird watching to get young people enthused about science and nature. This Bird Sleuth video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5OPTvrHh0U) encourages students (or anyone!) to get outside, watch birds, and take part in citizen science.
There are several citizen science projects through Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, such as the great backyard bird count. www.birdcount.org . Also, a fun app to use on your phone while out in the field is iNaturalist. www.inaturalist.org/. It has a variety of uses to not only record what you see with pictures and descriptions, but other users can help you identify your plant, bird, bug, or whatever else you’ve seen in the natural world.
Who doesn’t enjoy seeing a butterfly, flitting around some flowers? Because they are pollinators, it is important to protect these wonderful creatures. Since they are an “indicator species” (project the health of the environment), awareness of their importance is increased. Ridgway State Park started a citizen science project through the Colorado Butterfly Monitoring Network in 2017. Interested volunteers attended a training at the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colorado in 2015. There are now five routes in the park consistently monitored by volunteers. The idea is to expand this to other areas on the Western Slope next year. If you’d like to learn about starting a route for you and other families, please visit butterflies.org/research-and-conserve/butterfly-monitoring/.
Here is a suggestion for a fun summer garden project to help monarch butterflies – establish a certified “waystation” for these critters to stop and rest during migration. Monarch Watch also has links to other monarch butterfly projects (www.monarchwatch.org/waystations/).
Looking for more action packed activities in the outdoors? Try orienteering with your kids! It’s a great way to learn how to use a map, a compass and learn to observe subtle landscape features. There are many sites for guidance before you head out with your kids such as rainydaymum.co.uk/orienteering-with-kids/.
Geocaching – It’s like a treasure hunt! Geocaching is an outdoor recreational activity in which participants use a GPS or mobile device and other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers, called "geocaches" or "caches", at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world. It’s fun for them to see what “treasures” people have left behind in the “caches” and its great activity to lead you to explore places that you never thought of going. Go to www.geocaching.com/play to find out more and look at the available apps.
With each interaction in nature, children can acquire a sensitivity to nature’s elements. The more kids love and understand our natural world, the more they will want to protect it. Nature experiences can light up a spark of fascination and curiosity, and elicit many questions. Whether it involves plants, birds, butterflies or other critters, citizen science projects are a great way to engage your child with nature.
If you want to learn more about what other citizen science projects are out there including planets, plants, weather and even ticks, Popular Science has a website for that: www.popsci.com/story/diy/citizen-science-guide/ . This site provides links for those projects and other resources. So, get out there, have some fun, and do some science!
Blogs for Summer!
5 Simple Ways to Get Your Kids Gardening
Ethnobotany with Kids
Hiking with kids: 3 beautiful hikes
Getting outside with kids at local parks
Finding your way in the great outdoors