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Nature Centers: Magical Outdoor Classrooms

By Cindy Murphy


Tags: Sarett Nature Center, Education, Cross country skiiing,

CindyMurphyBlog.jpgOn a clear night with a star-filled sky, January’s Full Wolf Moon rose above the trees. Under the moonlight, and with flaming torches guiding them, skiers made their way along the woodland trails. Standing at the blazing bonfire set in a clearing, I remarked to my friend it felt as if we should be dancing around the fire, chanting in celebration of the full moon. She laughed, but in the firelight I caught a gleam in her eyes, and dragged her away before she took the suggestion to heart (psst … she can be a little bit wild, and I have no doubt she was contemplating how to dance wearing skis). We’d return back to the fire soon enough – a few more times, in fact; it was cold that night, with temperatures only in the single digits.

Full Moon by Susan Bachman

Venturing off the torch-lit trail, we found ourselves in a meadow – a prairie restoration project. Out of the darkness of the woods, with the moon and stars shining unobstructed by the trees, it wasn’t too difficult to see where we were going. We could faintly make out dark silhouettes of others who left the glow of the torches to ski out in the open under the moon too. Their laughter in the distance echoed eerily across the field. Occasionally, we’d suddenly come up on a group of them surprised at the encounter in the dark as we were. The whole experience had a surreal feel to it, which disappeared once we left the trails for the main building, its bright lights shining like a beacon of warmth.

Sitting in front of a roaring fire in the massive stone fireplace, we drank hot chocolate, and listened to others recall their adventures of the night. Groups came and went, following one of the naturalists out to the big observation deck overlooking a wooded ravine, as one-by-one he called to barred, screech, and great horned owls, and they called back in return. It was a night of wonder, and I couldn’t help but wish Shannon, my budding cross-country skier and one who always finds the magic in a full moon, could have experienced it with me.

Though the late hour and her novice skiing ability kept her home this trip, Shannon and I have not been strangers to Sarrett Nature Center this past year. Last spring, I was a chaperone for her class trip to learn about the center’s wetland and pond ecosystems. Everyone armed with tiny nets, we scooped tiny water creatures from the pond, and found the little white flowers hiding under the umbrellas of mayapples, spotted Jack in his pulpit, and smelled how skunk cabbage got its name. In the fall, I accompanied her class to the center, where we learned about the Native Americans of the area. We played some of the games Native American children played, tried (unsuccessfully) to make fire, and sat in a wigwam while listening to the naturalist explain how they lived, what they ate, and how important family was to them.

Sarrett’s takes its show on the road too. Winter brings the naturalists out to Shannon’s school for snow-shoeing treks through the school’s own nature center  – a three-acre or so wooded area that serves as a wonderful outdoor classroom. And just last week, some of the rescued wildlife that have become part of Sarrett’s family, made the trip to visit the school classrooms.

When Shannon told me she wanted to learn how to cross-country ski this winter, Sarrett’s was a natural choice; they offer ski and snow-shoe rental for a nominal fee – at $5.00 a day, it was far less expensive then buying skis for her on e-bay or Craig’s List and having her outgrow them before next winter. While she’s gotten pretty good at staying on her feet, she’s completely mastered the fine art of falling, and the even more difficult skill of getting up on her own ... only when she stops laughing long enough to do so.

I've fallen and I can't get up because I'm laughing too hard.

Evident by the caution sign along the entrance drive at Sarrett’s, “Children are Everywhere!” one of the primary goals of nature centers is to provide environmental education classes for children. But all age groups benefit from nature center visits. From classes for homeschoolers, family maple sugaring days, adult trivia nights, to sponsored off-location ski and canoe trips, there is a program for every interest.

William Wordsworth’s words, “Let nature be your teacher,” ring true at Sarrett’s and nature centers all over the country. They are places of learning, not only because of the programs they offer, but because they let us experience a diversity of nature far richer than perhaps we know exists within the areas in which we live. Living in an area with four distinct seasons only increases that awareness as each season presents new things for our senses to take in.

Trout lilies

Studies show that contact with nature promotes spiritual, emotional, and philosophical well-being. This is no different for our children than it is for us adults – it is even more important for our youngest generation. Something as simple as playing in places with trees helps them to develop cognitive abilities, and living in a green environment helps improve concentration and learning in school. If we, as families, experience more of our natural environment together, we not only raise stronger children in mind and in body, but we build family unity in times when it seems as if each family member is running off in a different direction when work or school is done for the day. Time spent together in nature garners a respect for one another, and also a respect for the world in which we live. Pretty cool to think a simple walk through the woods has the ability to do all that. Pretty cool that there are places like Sarrett Nature Center that promote it.

Full moon photo courtesy of local photographer, Susan Bachman. Thanks, Susan!

robyn dolan
3/27/2010 10:21:10 AM

Cindy, what an inspiring post! We went to the arboretum in Flagstaff on a field trip a couple years ago and always meant to go back. Think I'll check out what they have going on. Also, the ranger station in Williams was offering some nature hikes every Saturday in March, but that involves driving to Parks, 40 miles away. Still, it would have been a great hike. Think I better get off my duff! I share your joy in teaching you daughter to ski, Jacob, too has mastered the art of getting back up.


cindy murphy
3/17/2010 7:37:36 AM

Thanks for stopping by, Oz Girl....and I hope you get a chance to stop by the nature center in your area too. I think you'll be right, and be pleasantly surprized by what you find there.


oz girl
3/16/2010 2:20:58 PM

Cindy, I really enjoyed this post. We have a nature center not too far from our house, halfway between here and the largest town. I've never turned on the road with the sign that indicates its 2 miles down, but many times I've been tempted to explore further... and now you've propelled me to make that turn the next time I pass that road. My curiosity has finally gotten the better of me, and hopefully I'll be pleasantly surprised at what I find! :-) Love that pic of your daughter, laughing in the snow... reminds me of a simpler time when I was a kid!


cindy murphy
3/14/2010 11:20:32 AM

Thanks for the compliment, Mountain Woman. I love the full moon photo. It wasn't taken at Sarrett's though. The wife of a friend who does the most gorgeous nature photography, was kind enough to let me use the picture for my blog. I took the trout lily photo a couple of years ago at another of my favorite nature areas within walking distance from our house - the Kal-Haven Trail, a converted rail-road line. It won't be too long before the trout lilies are up and blooming, along with trilliums, blood root, anemones, merrybells, and all the other springtime woodland flowers. Discovering them blooming is like finding treasure; it's another thing Shannon and I like to do together. And thanks for you comment about her too; she IS adorable....uhm...when she wants to be!


mountain woman
3/13/2010 2:16:27 PM

Cindy, What a wonderful post and I loved your photos. I think what you have written about how important it is for children to get out and connect with nature is so true especially in this age of computers and cell phones and internet everywhere. There is magic being outside surrounded by our thoughts and the beauty of our world. What a wonderful resource you have with your nature center and what a magical full moon night. Shannon is adorable.


cindy murphy
3/13/2010 9:00:08 AM

Hi, Dave and Michelle. Yep, Michelle - Shannon loves being outdoors and all things nature-related. It's great because so much of my job revolves around both, and sharing nature is "our thing". Though, we're not lucky enough to have property with woods attached, we're fortunate that in addition to Sarrett's, there are numerous nature centers, nature preserves, and state parks in our area. Dave, you should try to make it a point to get out walking during the different seasons; you see all kinds of wondrous things you wouldn't expect. This week, my boss and I went on a six-mile hike on our 'rail to trail'. There was still quite a bit of snow in the woods, but patches of bright green moss was visible where the snow had melted - the contrast in colors was absolutely beautiful. We saw not one - but a whole flock of robins, (my first robin of the season - always a big deal). I didn't know robins flocked, but she told me they make their migrations in groups, and split up into pairs when they reach their destination. I guess this group just arrived, signaling spring can't be far behind.


michelle house
3/12/2010 6:53:08 PM

What a wonderful place to have and to visit. Sounds like you had a great time, and Shannon as well. Michelle


nebraska dave
3/12/2010 6:48:04 PM

Cindy, I love nature hikes. I haven't really found any in my area in the Winter. They usually are all in the Spring and Fall. Your have talked about the snow shoe experience of last fall I think. Cross country skiing or any kind of skiing has long past my ability to endure the knee and ankle pressures. It really sounds like your nature area has many things of interest going on in the different seasons. I want to get out more in nature this year.