by Amie Ouderkirk, Americorps Vista volunteer, Prescott College
2020 has been a rough year. From the closures to the reopenings to the current spike in cases, we continue to face the uncertainties of this fall.
School openings have been delayed for students, and some parents are even choosing to keep their children home this year. Yet, our community is bravely moving forward. As our teachers grapple with new and changing classroom restrictions, our students struggle with disrupted friendships and routines, and our parents try to balance both child care and work in their homes — we continue to show up and support one another. Our local leaders are taking vital precautions and ensuring that our community spaces, public lands and public schools continue to be safe places for us all.
One thing 2020 has taught us is the importance of the outdoors.
Here in Prescott, we are lucky to have access to so many outdoor spaces, including our beautiful parks and hundreds of miles of trails where we can socially distance naturally. There are three major lakes, forests, chaparral and meadows to enjoy while the weather is nice. Locals and out-of-towners have been using Prescott’s trails and open spaces more than ever.
Going outdoors is not only great for social distancing, but studies show time in natural spaces is good for our physical, mental and emotional health, as well. These benefits are especially important for our children.
With these benefits in mind and the uncertainty of this fall, the City of Prescott Recreation Services Department has decided to step up and offer the solution we know best: our outdoors.
We are responding to the needs of our teachers, students and families, and we are committed to building an even better “normal.” In this better normal, teachers and students have access to free outdoor learning spaces and outdoor lessons from professionals.
This is more of a revival of what was once the norm at the Prescott Community Nature Center. Until 2006, the center belonged to the Prescott Unified School District, and educators there provided free outdoor learning for all PUSD students. After the City of Prescott acquired the space, many of the programs were discontinued. Until now.
Creative and visionary leadership has been vital to this revival and collaboration. Joe Howard, the superintendent of Prescott Unified School District, has been a strong supporter of outdoor learning opportunities for all students for years, and he is well versed in the benefits of these types of programs:
“When I was a teacher in Chino Valley, our teaching team integrated our learning into our backyard, where the Verde River provided the perfect situation to study: the disappearing spikedace minnow,” he said. “It had all the facets of a well-written movie — ranchers and environmentalists who ended up working together, using science to stop pointing fingers and start providing facts. We had kids standing in the river with the Rocky Mountain Research Center shocking and counting fish as we studied the morphology of the Verde. Those kids, many of whom weren’t extremely interested in typical studies, used their English, math and science skills like never before. And as teachers, we checked off standards left and right. Kids become alive when they get outside and the topic of our studies is all around them.
“The Prescott Community Nature Center, with the vision of one of our finest environmental teachers, Henry Dahlberg, has been a place for generations to learn from. I am thrilled at the timing and energy of a renewal of this resource for our kids. There is no finer place for learning than right outside of our buildings here in beautiful Prescott.”
It is the Recreation Services Department’s goal to provide more of these opportunities for safe outdoor learning, so our students can learn in a hands-on and healthy style and forge a connection with the place they call home.
One of the most important benefits of this program this fall will be the ability to easily socially distance our students during learning activities. However, the benefits of outdoor learning extend far beyond that, which is one of the reasons we see this collaboration as key to building a better normal.
Studies have shown that outdoor learning truly benefits the whole child. Think back to your own childhood, do you remember the backyard? Bikes in the street? Treks to the park? Children these days have unstructured outdoor time for an average of four to seven minutes per day. Four to seven minutes. Studies correlate a host of psychological and behavioral concerns with this deprivation, collectively referred to as “nature deficit disorder.”
By bringing outdoor learning into children’s lives, we see physical benefits such as reduced obesity, reduced myopia (near-sightedness) and increase in vitamin D levels. Cognitively, studies have correlated outdoor learning with increased memory and higher test scores in science, math and language arts.
Howard’s story highlights why this is so. Even emotionally, we know that time outdoors can reduce stress and anxiety in young people — something that feels especially pertinent right now. All of this shows us that outdoor learning is not only a safer option for fall, but will contribute to our district’s goals of a high quality learning experience for all students, every day.
And, as the Recreation Services Department, we are always thrilled with any opportunity to share the joys of outdoor recreation and exploration with our next generation of public land stewards.
Despite a rough start to 2020, we are looking forward to this fall. As Kelly Tolbert, our City’s Recreation Coordinator, shares, “The Community Nature Center has long been a secret gem for the enjoyment, education and recreation needs of Prescott’s residents and visitors. A rich history, beginning with the property’s inception under the Prescott Unified School District, makes this collaboration with the City of Prescott Recreation Services Department a dream come true, and we could not be more excited to work with Joe Howard and his team.”
This fall, the Community Nature Center will be providing learning opportunities for its neighboring institutions, Granite Mountain School and Abia Judd Elementary. As field trip busing starts up again, we look forward to welcoming all of the district’s students to this secret gem. You can learn more on our website: www.prescottcommunitynaturecenter.org, or on our Facebook page, “Prescott Community Nature Center,” or by following us on Instagram @communitynaturecenter.
It is our hope that as we emerge from these months of uncertainty, the connection our community has built with the outdoors will continue to thrive. Through increased park use and outdoor learning opportunities, we know our community will continue to be one of the happiest and healthiest cities in America (Time Magazine, 2017). Above all, we hope this trend continues to spread across the nation, bringing more outdoor adventure and learning opportunities to all.
The Prescott Community Nature Center is at 1981 Williamson Valley Road. For more information about outdoor learning, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.