Natural Wonders

How Texans Reconnect Children With the State’s Natural Wonders

The Texas Children in Nature Network (TCiNN) is a nonprofit that seeks to ensure equitable access and connection to nature for the state’s children. It is comprised of more than 700 organizations across Texas that work on outreach and engagement. Along with offering technical assistance and educational resources, they host a three-day annual summit and virtual field trips to different sites around Texas.

“Research is showing the mental health, physical health, and social and emotional benefits that come with kids spending time outdoors,” says Sarah Coles, TCiNN’s executive director. “We are seeing increasing amounts of time that kids are spending indoors and behind screens, which affects their development. One of the best ways to combat that is by both playing and learning outdoors.”

Though my own kids enjoy being outside once they’re there, sometimes getting them out the door becomes more work than play. But on a Saturday in November, I convince them to join me on a trip to the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge— 2,088 acres of protected land in the Rio Grande Valley. Established in 1943, it’s an internationally known destination that draws birdwatchers from all over the world.

Like many of Texas’ parks and wildlife centers, the refuge prioritizes youth outreach, providing classes in which kids who’ve never spent significant time outdoors can explore the trails. The refuge also hosts bird walks and an hour-and-a-half interpretive tour along a 7-mile loop that tells the story of the refuge and its plants and wildlife. Kids are equipped with a junior ranger book with corresponding activities based on their age. When they’re done, they receive a little wooden nature badge.

“It’s rewarding to see the wonder in children’s eyes once they hit the trails,” says Christine Donald, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife outdoor recreation planner and site manager at the refuge. “We want to make sure the next generation connects to nature. Because who is going to save places like Santa Ana for the next generation?”

The Austin nonprofit Explore Austin is another model organization for these programs. It pairs sixth graders who apply and qualify with a volunteer mentor for six years. The mentor follows an outdoors-based curriculum to help students learn new skills and gain confidence. James Faerber, former program director for Explore Austin, is now the owner and executive director of Outpost Wilderness Adventure. The latter is a program that runs camps and expeditions in Texas and Colorado for people of different ages. His advice for parents trying to get their kids outdoors is to start small, explore their children’s interests, and get involved with groups in their community.

“Just simple things like swimming or going for a walk will work,” Faerber says. “I think most people, kids especially, do actually like spending time outside. They may just not realize that they do. They may not have had the right introduction to it.”

While there is hope for children and families in both rural and urban areas looking to migrate back outdoors, the challenges can be numerous, Coles says. Some common obstacles include lack of free time, access to nature, and financial resources. Working parents might not have the bandwidth to take their kids on wilderness adventures, and many outdoor activities can be daunting and costly. “There are ways of experiencing nature that don’t have to be on a grand scale like going to the Grand Canyon or Big Bend,” says Alice Jansen, TCiNN’s education events coordinator. “You can put a butterfly-friendly plant in your yard or go on a walk in the neighborhood.”

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