by Ashley Pedersen, Arizona Coordinator
Parks in Focus is special to me for several reasons, one of which is we target youth who typically have not had meaningful outdoor experiences. Their whole day is basically spent indoors. They go to school, attend afterschool programs at the Boys & Girls Clubhouse, and then head home to be with their families. While each of these locations can provide a rich experience, youth are missing the opportunity to develop a personal connection to nature—and Parks in Focus provides an opportunity for that.
Nature is a classroom. Parks in Focus, especially with the cunning use of photography, draws participant’s awareness to the intricacies of ecosystems. An understanding of the relationships among living things is critical to comprehend how humans impact the earth and to make informed decisions about environmental quality and our use of natural resources. Parks in Focus introduces youth to these concepts with structured environmental education lessons and activities and with unstructured exploration of ecosystems.
Nature is an inspiration. Parks in Focus participants get to enjoy the beauty that exists in the national, state, and local parks they visit. They are challenged to capture that beauty with their cameras so they can share it at home. These photos are souvenirs for the youth, but they also inspire family, friends, and community members who see them. Perhaps these photos will encourage others to visit an area or simply admire it from afar. Either way, the kids spread their experiences from, and generate an appreciation for, the natural areas they have visited through Parks in Focus.
Nature is whatever you need it to be. When you need a break, nature can be serene. When you need to activate your mind, nature can be stimulating. When I was twelve years old, I spent hours underneath the Blue Spruce tree in my backyard using my imagination to entertain myself. I would watch the quail running around and make up stories about the plants and animals in that small space. Parks in Focus provides youth with an opportunity to break out of their daily routines, leave their problems and worries behind for a short while, and tap into that creativity. Rather than relying on television, video games, and cell phones for amusement, we encourage youth to play games, make believe, write stories, and define their relationship to nature for themselves.
One participant comes to mind. This year, eleven year-old Raul gave names to all the wildlife he encountered during our 5-day camping trip to Flagstaff, AZ and the Grand Canyon. There was Bob the Abert’s Squirrel and Jack the Raven. Raul also created his own constellation in the form of a kangaroo. It’s not strange for kids to be imaginative—but creative time is scheduled out of their lives more and more. They move from school, to afterschool programs, to soccer practice, to homework and more. These activities build important skills but don’t necessarily give youth the unstructured free time they need to develop their creativity. Parks in Focus helps keep that alive.
I have benefited immensely from time spent in nature and want to share those benefits with youth who are clearly not getting outside. Parks in Focus helps youth develop an enthusiasm and awareness of the outdoors, and so a sense of stewardship towards the natural world. I’ve heard kids refuse to touch the muck and slime around a pond only to find them covered in mud minutes later when they start to discover tiny critters swimming around the pond’s edge. I’ve had youth share their fears and discomforts about sleeping in tents only to find the tents empty at night because they all wanted to sleep under the stars. I’ve watched participants step closer to an insect, that they normally would have squirmed and squealed about, in order to get the best shot.
It’s extremely fulfilling to see how youth change over the course of our program. Parks in Focus starts that spark of care and connection in kids who will grow up to be stewards of the earth. I hope to continue connecting youth to nature for many years to come.