The City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department understands the vital role it plays in bringing nature back to the city. No other organization is as ideally positioned across the city to begin reconnecting families to the outdoors.
The benefits children experience when they spend time in nature are both well documented and unequally distributed. No longer considered to be a niche interest or strictly recreational, connection to nature has been linked to emotional health, reduced obesity, problem solving skills and more. As a result, a ground swell of nature play and education initiatives are pushing middle class kids into the great outdoors, while their lower-income peers lack the same opportunity.
Parks and Recreation has two education coordinators: Susan Campbell is based at Hardberger Park, and Nicole McLeod is located at Friedrich Wilderness Center. Both coordinators have a full slate of educational activities available to the public, usually for a voluntary $1-$3 donation. The point of the classes, Campbell explained, is not to make money, but to create a nature-loving public.
“Our goal is to connect the kids enough that they would bring their families back and enjoy [the park] and protect it,” Campbell said.
The first barrier keeping kids from nature, according to advocates, is comfort. After a couple of generations of growing screen culture and diminishing unstructured time, families of every ethnicity and income level have to re-learn how to be outside. Parents are concerned with safety issues – snakes, thorns, poisonous things – and don’t have the know-how to help their kids use the outdoors to their fullest.
“We teach the parents as much as we teach the kids,” Campbell said.
Even in relatively affluent Alamo Heights, parents have cited the open patches of dirt on the Cambridge Playground as one of the reasons for having paved and turned it into a parking lot, and replacing it with an artificial turf field closer to the school.
Robert Rinn, manager of the San Antonio Natural Areas for the City, says that one of the biggest tasks for the department is to help people remember that “dirt is a good four-letter word.” He remembers the pavement encroaching on the creeks and wooded areas around the neighborhood where he grew up, and the opportunities that were forever lost to subsequent generations.
Giving those opportunities back to the public means more than just opening up a field.
Accessibility issues prevent many from experiencing the benefits of time spent in nature. Most of the time it requires driving outside the city, using vacation time, and spending money on gear and fees. Urban nature centers have to charge admission, and State and National Parks are usually remote. With these considerable barriers, it’s not surprising that one study revealed that 78% of National Park visitors are white.
If money, time, and transportation are not readily available, it’s less likely that a family will be able to develop comfort in the outdoors. As a result, many have noted, “outdoor” culture as a whole is overwhelmingly white. Access to dirt and trees became a sign of privilege.
Schools and parks can change that.
Alamo Heights ISD may want to pave their patch of dirt, but they do have more intentional engagement with nature through outdoor classrooms, school gardens, and field trips. Fifteen campuses within San Antonio ISD are cultivating gardens and natural areas on campus. North East ISD has an outdoor recreation program in its physical education curriculum.
Many schools also take field trips to Hardberger Park. Of course, while a field trip might incite curiosity, it is regular exposure that yields the real benefits.
The Parks & Recreation Department’s publicly accessible programs are full before Campbell can even print the flyers to advertise them.
“I print them to let people know what we are doing, but I have to print ‘full’ next to every single class,” Campbell said.
She used to split her time between Hardberger Park and Medina River Natural Area, but demand at Hardberger exploded once the Urban Ecology Center opened in 2013. The Alamo Area Master Naturalists meet at the center as well, and provide a steady stream of volunteers for Campbell. She also partners with the Texas Master Gardeners, Texas A&M AgrilLife Extension, Project ACORN, and the Texas Children in Nature Network.
The Hardberger Park Conservancy helps with everything from advertising to registration to materials. It has been the “driving force” behind the expansion of educational initiatives at the park, Cambell said. At Friedrich Wilderness Park, the Friends of San Antonio Natural Areas is an active partner.
Campbell also is seeing that a new generation of young parents is enthusiastic about getting their kids outside. “This generation is into it,” she said.
Growing Up Wild (4-6 years) and Starting Out Wild (18 months-3 years) classes are incredibly popular. With a well-structured mix of movement, song, crafts, and good scientific information, kids learn to enjoy nature and parents are able to ease into it. Each class also includes a little hike somewhere in the park, with helpful information about the various flora and fauna that might worry parents. On the walks, Campbell demonstrates how nature can enhance learning.
“We don’t tell them how to think,” Campbell said. “We ask questions about what they think, what do they see, how might it be used.”
The Northside location of the park helps as well. More parents in the area are able to bring their kids to the 10 a.m. weekday class than those in other parts of town. Now, of course, word has spread, and families come from as far as Pleasanton and New Braunfels.
Starting Out Wild was developed in San Antonio by Peggy Spring and Wendy Drezek, to extend the principles of Project Wild’s Growing Up Wild program to an even younger audience. Other partnerships have targeted other age groups including elementary and middle schoolers. The Headwaters of Incarnate Word partners with Hardberger Park to show monthly nature movies. In the summer, the classes become day camps – Nature’s Garden camp and Growing Up Wild “Wild Week.”
To open up opportunities for families who can’t make it on weekdays or are still on the 20-person waiting lists for the Starting Out Wild classes, Hardberger Park will host a Nature Play Day, from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. on May 6.
Campbell believes that the appeal of these programs is universal, but extending them to other parks would require some strategy. Hardberger Park benefits from the same confluence of resources as other Northside institutions: money (in the form of a conservancy), volunteer time, and weekday patronage. Medina River Natural Area, Pearsall Park, Woodlawn Lake, and other large City parks have interesting natural features and classroom capabilities. Still, it would require mobilized volunteers, strong partnerships, and responsive scheduling to replicate the success and scale of what is happening at Hardberger and Friedrich Wilderness parks.
It also would require more Susan Campbells and Nicole McLeods. The dedicated oversight feeds into the virtuous cycle of volunteers and conservancy funding. People see their efforts paying off as Campbell and McLeod manage the programs.
Campbell’s weeks are full, but with more facilitators the movement could spread. Right now her goal is to get the curriculum training to as many potential facilitators as possible. The Parks & Recreation Department has hosted trainings for Pre-K 4 SA, Master Naturalists, public school educators, and others to activate any possible point of contact that could draw kids back to nature.