A change in seasons at the Helen Schuler Nature Centre brings a new slate of programming designed to help children and youth form lifelong connections to their natural habitat.
Encouraging children from a very young age to engage with nature can have lasting benefits for their physical and mental health, as well as instilling a continued conservation ethic for the future of the natural world, says Coreen Putman, co-ordinator of the Helen Schuler Nature Centre.
“Contact with nature is vital for every aspect of childhood development — it is literally the best thing you can do for your child,” says Putman.
She says research shows children exposed to nature have decreased stress levels, improved mental concentration in classroom settings and improved self-control. And it’s been proven that the benefits tend to last well into adulthood, as these children become the next generation of entrepreneurs, corporate leaders and nature conservationists.
According to Parks Canada documents, an emphasis on literacy and numeracy during the past 20 years has pushed children into more indoor activities and structured environments. Ongoing safety concerns by parents and caregivers has also led to a reduction in outdoor free play, leading to an elimination of outdoor play structures.
But studies show children who regularly interact with nature receive numerous lasting health benefits, such as being more physically fit with lower body mass index scores.
“Time spent in nature can also be an important bonding opportunity for the entire family because it removes the distractions of modern technology or daily chores,” Putman says.
Lethbridge residents are fortunate to have the Oldman River valley — with its abundant wildlife and diversity of habitats — available for exploring in the heart of the city, she says.
“We’re just a short drive from any corner of the city,” she says.
Unstructured exploration is available from dawn to dusk through a system of the trails in the 200-acre nature reserve surrounding the centre.
Putman says the general public is welcome to join a naturalist during guided nature walks from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday. For those preferring to walk unguided, Centre naturalists are out on the trails between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays and are available to answer any nature questions.
The newly modernized nature centre, Lethbridge’s first designated LEED Gold Facility, is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday during the fall and winter months for drop in visits. It features seasonal exhibitions and interactive displays, and is also home to some living animal residents.
Structured programming at the centre includes the Big Bird Little Bird program, which begins in November. It’s designed for an adult relative or friend to pair with a youngster two to five years old for one hour per week of nature engagement.
“The point is to get people out and get them excited about what they’re seeing in nature,” Putman says. “The children are naturally drawn to nature and have a lot of fun.”
The adult participant is able to learn new ideas and take away tools that they can use for ongoing nature exploration with the child participant.
The next level of programming — the Junior Naturalist program — is geared for youth age six to 10. Operated on a drop-in basis with parental sign-in required, the program is held from 10 am to 12 noon on alternating Saturdays. Each theme is limited to 20 participants and is offered for two consecutive Saturdays to allow more youth to participate in smaller group sizes.
“This program features nature themes that are explored through fun, games and discovery,” says Putman. “At this age, we really start to see their enthusiasm for nature grow.”
September themes are River Wild, which focuses on the Oldman River habitat, and Chomp & Chew, where participants search for visible signs of animal teeth markings in the natural habitat surrounding the centre.
Extreme by Nature is designed for youth naturalists age 11 to 15 years. This month’s session is being held on Sept. 24 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and participants will create “Bug Hotels” out of natural debris to house insects and beetles that seek shelter for the winter months.
“It’s part art, part science and each participant will be able to take their hibernating hut home,” says Putman.
All programming is offered free of charge on a first-come, first-served basis and the centre relies heavily on volunteers and donations to operate, Putman says. The centre receives more than 30,000 visitors and offers nearly 1,000 different programs a year.
“We hope that people who can afford it will donate so no child is left inside,” she says.
There are many volunteer opportunities available, which can include trail guiding, programming assistance, or looking after the centre’s animal residents.
Volunteers are also welcome to join the Friends of the Helen Schuler Nature Centre Society, which supports programming at the Centre, for an annual fee of $10 per adult or $5 per youth.
Putman says the Nature Centre also co-ordinates a variety of volunteer conservation projects throughout the year, which are intended to improve the natural space and bring community members together over their mutual appreciation of nature.
The Knapweed Pull is being held on Sept. 17 from 7 pm to 9 pm and the Shoreline Clean-Up, in conjunction with the Oldman Watershed Council, is being held on Sept. 15 from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Botterill Bottom Park and Sept. 19 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Indian Battle Park.
Putman says anyone interested in participating in any of the programs and events should contact the centre for more information or to register.
Information about the centre, its programming, volunteer opportunities and upcoming events can all be found on the City of Lethridge website at http://www.lethbridge.ca/Things-To-Do/Nature-Centre/Pages/default.aspx.
Parks Canada information about the benefits of connecting with nature can be accessed at http://www.pc.gc.ca/APPS/CP-NR/release_e.asp?id=2082&andor1=nr.