Opportunities for Kids to Spend Time in Nature Abound in Delaware

Photo by Angie Gray

Spending time in nature improves health, wellness and the environment. This connection is especially important for children of the wired generation.

In his bestseller Last Child in the Woods (2005, Algonquin Books), Richard Louv links disturbing childhood trends like depression, obesity and attention difficulties to a lack of something previous generations had in abundance: time outdoors.

In the book, he coins the term “nature-deficit disorder,” a metaphor to describe the human costs of alienation from nature, and he explains through evolving research how connecting with the natural world is essential for a developing child’s physical and mental well-being.

“Early exposure builds a stronger bond to nature and makes a lasting imprint,” says Louv, placing the onus on caregivers to put down the devices, get off the couch and go explore what’s in our backyards. “Those of us who had that connection as kids have a responsibility to pass it along.”

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What’s more, he adds, is that “continuing that bond as an adult has enormous benefits for leading a fuller, healthier life.”

This is your brain on nature

Clinical therapist Kim Williams, LCSW, who works with children at her private practice in Pike Creek, says that spending time in nature not only soothes us but actually alters brain chemistry.

“Nature modulates behavior, reduces anxiety and stress, and increases attention span,” she says, noting that attention is restored to a normal, healthy state through exposure to the outdoors. This is especially critical in an era when youth are constantly connected to devices like smartphones, tablets and video games.

“Kid’s brains are not built to sustain monitoring screens, and excess digital connectivity causes mental strain,” she explains. “That brain fatigue can become overwhelming,” leading to emotional and attention disorders.

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In a 2015 Harvard Health ecotherapy study, researchers compared the brain activity of two groups of people: those who had just walked for 90 minutes in either a natural or urban setting. They discovered that those who had experienced nature had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for negative emotions and stress. The study also found that soothing sights and sounds in the wild can help lower blood pressure and reduce the stress hormone, cortisol.

Furthermore, Williams says, nature assists kids with creativity and building connections with other kids. “When playing in a park, they are [present] with the people around them. They’re also more kind in a natural setting. How good do you feel when your child picks a flower and gives it to you? An iPad doesn’t encourage that kindness,” she says.

“As parents, we need to promote healthy activities to make our children more inquisitive, clear-minded, creative and kinder,” Williams urges. This will ensure that they don’t miss out on the real world, which ultimately leads to happier, less stressful lives.

Unrestricted play

On a sticky summer evening at Brandywine Creek State Park, 9-year-old OllieDean-Theibault peers inquisitively into the lush bushes that hug the river this time of year. His mom, Jenna, carries his younger sister Wynnie, 4, on her back, pointing out insects and flowers that make a popping sound.

A moment later, Ollie sprints effortlessly up a nearby oak, securely lodging his limbs between its fork to get a better view of the terrain that lies ahead. There are denser trails, narrow beaches and a burbling creek yet to explore.

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“We’ve been taking them out in nature since they were very tiny,” says Jenna, who spent her childhood in the Poconos with an outdoorsy family and says devoting significant time to nature helps her “reset” and breathe. Wynnie went on her first eight-day camping trip when she was just 6 weeks old. “I went to my six-week postpartum appointment, and we immediately got in the car and headed to Acadia National Park in Maine.”

Husband Chris, who grew up in north Wilmington with the park in his backyard, didn’t find an affinity for the outdoors until he started dating Jenna. But after a few camping trips he was hooked, and the couple knew they wanted to raise their family to have an appreciation for the outdoors.

Photo by Angie Gray

Not fans of cold weather, the Deans typically reserve the winter months for short hikes and long-distance trips to warm national parks, but in the spring and summer they like to immerse themselves in the local wilderness areas—splashing in the creek, tubing down the river, camping.

Ollie, a Revolutionary War buff, also attends the Brandywine Battlefield Summer History Camp and Boy Scouts. Both kids have gone to adventure day camps at Ashland Nature Center, where they love to explore the stream.

Even a trip to Disney World is about the outdoors: Whenever the family visits the Magic Kingdom, they overnight on the magical campgrounds amid forests of pine and cypress and live critters.

“There are a lot of benefits to being outside, for the kids and for us,” Jenna says. “Out in nature, there’s space to explore their bodies and what they can do, and that’s empowering. They have the freedom to run and climb and see what nature has to offer—as well as what they can accomplish.”

Other benefits are less screen time, which means more family bonding, and sounder sleep.

“We’re more present during adventures, so the kids are more centered,” Jenna says. “And they never sleep harder than they do after a day outside. Ollie will even take a nap in the car on the way home, which is crazy for a kid his age.”

Overall, Jenna likes how playing in nature builds her kids’ confidence.

“Wynnie is more cautious than Ollie—who is fearless and go-go-go,” she says. “Even though she stays closer to us, I see her becoming more self-assured and eager to explore.

“Some parents might think I’m too carefree, but I think you need to know your body. You’re going to get cuts and scrapes and maybe a broken bone or two, but you’re also going to have the confidence then to navigate a lot more than just the outdoors.”

Anne-Jeannette Stachowski of Bellefonte has a son, Brannon, and daughter, June, who are 12 years apart. When Brannon was little, A.J. was a busy single mom who still found time to take him to the playground and baseball games, and occasionally snowboarding and skimboarding.

Now, as a predominantly stay-at-home mom (she works part-time) to 3-year-old June, she turned to Delaware State Parks for free daily entertainment, and her excitement for the outdoors exploded.

“At first I was worried about having a routine since I was posting some of our adventures on social media,” A.J. says. “At the time, Delaware State Parks had this passport kit with a map you could use to find all the parks and then check them off after your visit. So for a mere $35, I bought an annual pass and we started going to all the different parks—there are only three, in Sussex County, we haven’t visited. I realized how much our little state has to offer. Every day is different, and the possibilities seem endless.” 

Whether they’re exploring the sands of Cape Henlopen State Park, kayaking Marsh Creek, canoodling with animals at Coverdale Farm Preserve or road tripping to Niagara Falls, A.J. enjoys the fresh air and scenery, but she’s especially fond of the curiosity their time in nature has sparked in June.

“She loves to pick up sticks and dip her toes in the creek and look for snakes,” A.J. observes. “And she’s started saying things like ‘Look at that tree!’ I love to see how amazed she is now by the little things we [adults] take for granted. She has more of an imagination outside because she doesn’t have toys to play with—so she makes her own, like imaginary dinosaur eggs.”

Brannon is not your typical teenager in the sense that he’s super polite and thinks his parents are cool. But when it comes to modern devices and reluctance to unplug, he’s a lot like most kids his age.

“He’ll often say he doesn’t want go hiking with us, but then when we get out there, he totally enjoys it,” A.J. says. “He’ll usually bring a friend, and we’ll hear them talking about how amazing this waterfall was or taking photos of all the things they see.”

A.J. attributes some of June’s adventurous spirit to the fact that she’s had so much time to explore the outdoors freely, without the restrictions that indoor play brings. She also notices a “calmer” energy when June is playing in a natural setting.

“There’s so much you can introduce your kids to here, including nature centers and aquariums at some of the park visitor centers,” she says. “Snow, rain or shine, if the weather is safe, we’re getting outside.”   

Budding environmentalists

Tucked away off of Barley Mill Road in Hockessin, Ashland Nature Center offers myriad opportunities to commune with nature amid its 130 acres. Here you’ll find 4 miles of trails through forests of maples, oaks and tulip poplars; a marsh and meadows; a stretch of Red Clay Creek; a camping lodge; a butterfly house in the summer; and a blind for bird-watching.

Serving as the headquarters for Delaware Nature Society (DNS), a nonprofit founded in 1964 to connect people with nature to help improve the environment, Ashland’s idyllic setting and educational attractions make it an ideal place for kids of all ages to learn and explore.

DNS also works with a private land owner who provides use of the Bucktoe Creek Preserve in nearby New Garden Township, Pennsylvania, where 290 wild acres extend outdoor opportunities, like tent camping.

David Pragoff knows firsthand the benefits the outdoors has on the human senses. Growing up near 150 acres of woods, he was encouraged to get out of the house and explore. “When I was older, I was fortunate enough to attend a residential summer camp in the woods where, on the very first day, they would take away anything that used a battery and you wouldn’t see if for seven weeks. You were required to interact with nature and those around you.”

Pragoff is especially fond of paddling on the water—“anywhere you can’t hear the regular din of things around you,” he says—and passing his own passion for the environment on to younger generations.

As Ashland’s school and group programs team leader, Pragoff oversees all activities that DNS offers for school audiences and community-based groups, like Girl Scouts. He also heads outreach programs for daycares and schools to help ensure that children from all areas have some kind of exposure to the natural world.

“Louv’s work has been foundational at reinvigorating some things that people within the field have known for a long time,” Pragoff says. “He’s found a way to frame it and galvanize it, so that it’s drawn a lot of attention, which is much, much needed.”

As the dad of an 8-year-old, he knows it can be tough to break kids away from the screen—even when they have a parent who’s eager to explore with them. “Some data suggests teens are spending seven to nine hours a day in front of some type of screen,” Pragoff notes, “and 8- and 9-year-olds are spending as many as five hours.”

Through more than 20 years in his field, Pragoff has observed how children become calmer outside, even if they’re just walking in the woods. He points to shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing”), a concept embraced by the Japanese in the early 1980s as a way to avoid tech burnout and help protect the environment by reconnecting the community to it.

Erynn DeGennaro, 26, didn’t grow up with exposure to the outdoors beyond normal suburban neighborhood play. But a family friend helped her get a job as a camp counselor at Ashland as a young teen, which led her down an unexpected path.

Studying wildlife conservation in college, DeGennaro returned to DNS to become the public programs and summer camp coordinator at Ashland, and she’s never turned back.

She loves seeing the excitement the camp’s diverse programs bring to inquisitive young minds, especially those who’ve had little prior exposure to the local wilderness or creatures that inhabit it. “Depending on the time of day and year, they get to see things like turtles and salamanders and frogs,” DeGennaro notes. “And our staffers have a variety of backgrounds and knowledge to answer any questions they might have.”

Summertime hosts day camps for younger kids, while teenagers have the opportunity for far-away adventures like kayaking, rock climbing, fishing and trekking the Appalachian Trail. Young adults can become counselors, or “big sisters and brothers,” as they’re known here.

“In each age group, we’re outside pretty much all day unless the weather forces us indoors,” DeGennaro says. “We try to learn things, and if the kids do, that’s amazing. But at the end of the week, as long as they’ve had a good time outdoors, that’s all that matters.”

A Teen Naturalist Group runs year-round, providing teens 13 to 17 the opportunity for monthly day trips, as well as long-distance excursions like backpacking or canoeing on New York’s Allegheny River.

“These trips help teens get a break from everything. They’re always on social media, so it’s great for them to not even have service and have to connect with what’s around them,” DeGennaro says. “It gets them ready for real life and real people interactions, and many form lasting friendships.”

Whether Pragoff’s team is traveling to schools with reptiles and learning activities, or hosting adventure or science-geared camps onsite, these different programs spark curiosity, imagination, team-building and critical thinking.

“In addition to being safe, educational and fun,” he says, “the main goal is to connect young kids to the natural world to improve their health and the environment. You can’t care about the environment if you’re not a part of it, so that’s what we strive to do.”

Published as “Born to be Wild” in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of 302Health magazine.

Vitamin N(ature)

To get the daily requirement of Vitamin N (a term also coined by Richard Louv in his later book of the same name), you don’t need to travel beyond your backyard. But for a healthier dose of Nature, these parks and programs serve it in abundance. Parks and programs may have been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions, be sure to check each program’s website for more information. Read more about visiting Delaware parks and wildlife areas during COVID-19 here.

At Camp Arrowhead, kids bunk, eat, play and explore together. For many, it’s their first overnight-camp experience. What cooler way to lodge than in a cabin by the Rehoboth Bay?

“Be prepared.” Enjoy the outdoors and learn how to survive in it at Delaware Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts.

Explore nature and science through hands-on, interactive activities for a variety of ages at Delaware Museum of Natural History.

Ashland isn’t Delaware Nature Society’s only bridge to the outdoors. Year-round, it offers exciting activities at its four local sites, which feature educational courses like cooking, survival skills, farm discovery and so much more.

From spring break through summer vacation, Delaware State Parks offers a series of programs and camps focused on exploration, conservation and adventure. For families, its 17 sites offer endless exploration.

For teens struggling with emotional or behavioral challenges, Trails Momentum’s wilderness therapy can help guide them back to the right path.

Want to drink in nature’s sights and sounds from the water? Coastal Kayak (Fenwick Island), Delaware River Adventures (Milford, 422-2000), Quest Kayak (Lewes) and Wilderness Canoe Trips (Wilmington) are some private outfitters that offer guides, boat and inner tube rentals.

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