Since March of this year, Teacher Naturalists Gwendolyn Causer and I have been visiting the King Street Center in Burlington on Thursdays afterschool to take a group of students outside. There are many enrichment programs available to engage these students, but out of all the choices our group chose Audubon Adventures.
Like other afterschool programs Audubon Vermont offers, our goal is to spend the entire time outside, exploring nature where you are. While this is an easy goal to reach at schools like Allen Brook in Williston which is surrounded by fields and a stream, or here at the Green Mountain Audubon Center in Huntington where Brewster Pierce students hop off the bus once a week for afterschool exploration, King Street is in the middle of urban Burlington. I live in central Vermont and didn’t go to Burlington all that often, so I relied on Gwen’s knowledge of green spaces in town. Now, I laugh because after 6 months of visiting Burlington, my internal map of the city has the King Street Center at the heart surrounded by a ring of parks and open spaces that K-5th graders can access on foot.
Anyone who enjoys spending time outside can tell you how good it is for your soul, and there is much research out now describing the physical and cognitive benefits of outdoor play on a child’s development. But another thing is becoming increasingly clear: access to the outdoors is not available to everyone. Surveys from the Outdoor Foundation found two important factors about who recreates outside in America: more than half are from households that exceed the national income average and 70% of youth who recreate outdoors aged 6-24 are Caucasian. As a result of this discrepancy of outdoor exposure minorities are more likely to perceive outdoor recreation as riskier than other groups (Ken Cordell, US Forest Service) and are less likely to pursue careers in conservation (James Mills, 2014). Audubon Vermont is working to make sure that all kids have access to the outdoors and our partnership with King Street Center is helping us reach that goal.
Last Thursday we got to ride the King Street Bus to Red Rocks Park (our group voted and Red Rocks came out on top). We spent an hour climbing on rocks, looking at mushrooms, investigating a hollow tree, and finding a hidden fairy house that Gwen and her daughter built over the past 14 years. We had some new experiences too, including being in the woods as it got dark. Two second graders were having fun describing the spooky they thought they saw, which gave me the chance to explain how our eyes work, and why we see things that are not true-to-life at night. “My rods were not misfiring, I know what I saw!” exclaimed one student after the spookiness started to get to us all.
It is one of the best parts of my week to get to go outside and just see what we find with the King Street kids. A leech in Lake Champlain, an acorn at Battery Park, and a group of Ring-billed Gulls examined through binoculars have all been connections to the wider natural world around us in the heart of Vermont’s most populous city.