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Parents and children hike into the forest as part of Ryerson Woods' "Playdate with Nature" program.


Back to nature: Urban kids reap rewards from exploring the outdoors

by Sara Kupper
Nov 27, 2013


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Sara Kupper/MEDILL

Chicago high school students remove and burn invasive species at Bemis Woods in Western Springs.


Sara Kupper/MEDILL

Chicago area nature programs bring inner city students into the woods. 


“Look at these, right here! What are these?”

Lake County resident Sara Knizhnik points to a clump of mushrooms nestled at the base of a tree. Three-year-old Nora Snyder leans closer, peering at the mushrooms before offering a guess:

“Marshmallows?”

Knizhnik laughs. “Close!” she says.

Knizhnik and Snyder are part of a hodgepodge of parents and children participating in a “Playdate with Nature” at Ryerson Woods in Riverwoods.

The day’s program, sponsored by the Lake County Forest Preserves, takes full advantage of the riotous October foliage in the woods. Participating children receive small, plastic color samples, which they match to the shades of fallen oak and maple leaves during a short hike through the woods. They also use hand mirrors to observe the trees above them and magnifying glasses to get a better view of fungus on a decomposing log.

Programs such as “Playdate with Nature” provide more than just the opportunity for children to appreciate autumn splendor. Repeated studies prove that regular outdoor time offers immeasurable health benefits to an entire generation of young people – one-third of who are overweight, and who spend an average of 6.5 hours a day staring at a screen, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“The physical activity piece that comes from being outside has its own benefits. There’s no debating that anymore, it’s so well established,” said Christina Scirica, a Massachusetts pediatric pulmonologist with expertise in obesity management. And then comes the bonus. “There does seem to be a benefit from being outdoors in and of itself. Rates of depression go down, anxiety goes down, attention has been shown to improve,” she added.

Ann B. Maine, president of the Lake County Forest Preserves board, moved to Lake County so her four sons could have access to Ryerson Woods. “Children who are outdoors, they’re calmer. They can focus better. But with my own experience I don’t even need the studies. You can just see it,” she said.

Pam Lincoln sees it, too.

Lincoln, an environmental science teacher at Pritzker College Prep in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood, collaborates with Chicago’s Inner City Outings outreach program (an offshoot of the Sierra Club) to give her students – many of who have never been outside their own neighborhood – access to the natural world.

Pritzker, a high school of about 850 kids, is 96 percent Hispanic and 98 percent of students receive free and reduced price lunches.

“Last year when we were covering different types of forests and ecosystems, I was trying to get them to think about a time they’d been in the forest, so they could picture what it looked like. And one of the kids said, ‘Do you mean, like, Rainforest Café?’” Lincoln said.

“A lot of the time that’s what I’m working with – students who have never seen, or have no access to nature. It’s so vital for them to get out and see what it’s supposed to look like.”

Today, Lincoln and 40 of her students, along with students and teachers from two other Chicago-area high schools, are helping to remove and burn invasive species at Bemis Woods in Western Springs, part of the Cook County Forest Preserves.

They cluster around stands of European buckthorn, sawing and periodically shouting “Timber!” when a tree falls to the ground.

The students get community service credit for attending the Inner City Outings (ICO) programs, but “most of the kids who are here have already fulfilled their community service requirement,” Lincoln said.

“I just wanted to come. I mean, for real! I just found out today I get four hours [of community service] for this,” agreed Jose, a freshman and one of Lincoln’s students. The Bemis Woods trip is the fifth ICO trip he has attended this year.

“Being in the city, it’s a lot about phones, Facebook…right here, it’s just nature,” he said.

For all her enthusiasm about the Pritzker-ICO collaboration, Lincoln willingly admits that outdoor time is not a panacea for Chicago’s at-risk youth. But she has noticed it strengthen her relationships with her students and provide them with a sense of fulfillment.

She applauds one student who attended every ICO trip last year. The student spent a lot of time in detention and “was troublesome in other classrooms,” Lincoln said, but “he was always perfect in my class because I had that bond with him, of being able to see him in this setting.”

“For some students, the classroom isn’t the best outlet for them. They want to move; they want to have a job to do. Being able to work on a tree for half an hour, cut it down and watch it burn, that is more fulfilling to them than getting their math homework done,” she said.

“We’re constantly active. We have a goal. And at the end of this day, we can easily say, ‘it looks like we burned a bunch of stuff!’” said Chris Grenier, the lively, bearded chair of the Chicago ICO, as he overlooked the crackling heap of buckthorn that the students had piled in the center of the forest clearing.

Grenier was helping out at Bemis Woods despite the fact that it was his daughter’s first birthday.

“I grew up on the East Coast. I hiked the Appalachian Trail. To me, getting out, traveling, it’s what you do. The whole concept of not leaving your neighborhood…I can’t even comprehend most of the issues that they face or the mentality that they have,” he said of the program’s participants.

“It’s tough. I feel bad because there’s so much more I want to do for them. I feel good about bringing them outside and just letting them get out of their home environment. But I feel bad because I can’t do more,” he said.

Still, a few hours hacking at sprouting buckthorn trees works wonders.

At the edge of a clearing, six Pritzker students take turns sawing at a bigger invasive tree and discussing their attempts to cut it in two, despite adults’ protests that it is too big a job.

“I started, and I’m gonna end it!” says one.

“Everyone’s telling me, ‘don’t cut it!’” says another.

“‘Don’t cut it, don’t cut it’, and you’re like, ‘I can do it’!” interrupts the first.

“I can do it!” each student says in turn.

“I can do it!”