Technology is pretty cool, we get it. It’s convenient, it’s entertaining, there’s a lot of great learning tools out there. Yeah, yeah, we know.
But let’s be honest, the majority of the year is chilly-to-downright-cold in Northeast Ohio, so when warm weather finally comes, it’ll be high time to put away the smart devices and get outside to take advantage of it. Luckily, there are many offerings in the region to look forward to that provide an opportunity to nurture kids’ love of nature.
A Vital Part of Childhood
While it may not seem like it at the moment, summertime is around the corner. And summer is the best time for taking a long break from screens and cluttered rooms and giving your kids’ eyes, brains and bodies a dose of pure, elemental play.
“Outdoor experiences are healthy for children,” says Bethany Majeski, North Chagrin Nature Center manager with the Cleveland Metroparks. “Exploration of the natural world helps to build strong bodies and minds, and playing in nature helps to stoke the fire of imagination and adventure. In a world where kids increasingly face social and academic pressures, time spent outdoors can be a powerful tool in managing stress and capturing some of the beauty and magic that makes childhood so special.”
Going beyond just taking a break from screens, spending time outdoors is an ongoing opportunity for kids to learn about themselves and the world around them on a deeper level, says Ellie Rial, manager of public programs, Holden Forests & Gardens.
“I feel that it is most important because it allows time for kids to explore the unique sense of wonder that can only be found in nature — like spotting your first lightning bug or the feeling you get climbing your first tree,” she says. “Time spent in nature inspires creativity, curiosity, and offers an outlet for many kids to simply play freely. That feeling, once found, sticks with you forever and is the foundation for an appreciation of nature.”
The Child Mind Institute, in its article “Why Kids Need to Spend Time In Nature,” claims that the average American child spends just four to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors and more than seven hours per day in front of a screen. Meanwhile, studies show that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors, according to the institute.
When they do put the phone down and go outside, many parents say they see the positive effects of nature on their children firsthand. Julia Buddie, a mother of three in Amherst, notices a shift in her children after they get some fresh air.
“I feel it is important for children to explore because it is a mood changer,” Buddie says. “My children are much happier and have less behavioral issues if we have spent some time outside versus being indoors. They’re much more pleasant winding down in the evenings and usually have a good night’s sleep.”
Outdoor play also gives them a chance to use their imagination, and it teaches them how to respect nature, she says. “It’s a family priority in which everyone takes part.”
“The majority of the activities my husband and I do are outside,” Buddie says. “Because of that, our children will follow in our footsteps. We fish Lake Erie, paddleboard, swim in our backyard pool, snow ski in the winter, go on nature hikes and visit playgrounds regularly.”
In addition, more interaction with nature tends to build a sense of responsibility among both children and adults alike.
“Kids ultimately need to learn about nature because it is such an important part of our lives,” says Karie Wheaton, a naturalist with the Geauga Park District. “From animals pollinating flowers to give us the food we eat to what we put on our lawns impacting the water quality in our area — we are innately connected with nature. It is imperative that kids and adults understand this connection and why it is so important. Kids that love nature turn into adults that love nature and ultimately adults that want to protect nature for future generations.”
Find Your Experience
There are a number of ways that your family can pack the season with exploration, discovery, education and activity. Surrounded by a pretty great Great Lake, the vast metroparks systems and a genuine National Park, Northeast Ohio has no shortage of nature-based activities in which kids can take part during the summer — from traditional outdoor camps to programs that offer unique ways to explore the outdoors.
It just takes a little planning and forethought to make the most of it all.
“Ever since the kids were small, we looked for programs that took place outside,” said Michele Caldwell, a mother of five from Mentor. “Through the city of Mentor, they have an amazing choice of summer camps. We most often chose their Civic Center camps, as the kids not only were able to go to the pool almost every day, but took field trips outside to many different destinations, like the zoo, Cedar Point, different waterparks and some of the metroparks.”
Metroparks throughout Northeast Ohio, along with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, offer both formal and informal opportunities for families to interact with nature.
“Kids can learn to snowshoe, fish, kayak or enjoy a family campout under the stars,” Majeski says. “They can get up-close with live Ohio animals like owls, snakes and turtles, and explore rivers, forests, meadows and the shores of Lake Erie.”
If your child does better with a more traditional camp setting, you can find options just about anywhere you turn. From tiny tots to high-schoolers, kids get a chance to learn, play and explore with friends old and new. Check with your city and your local metroparks to see what they have for your kid’s age group.
“We have five nature centers across Cuyahoga County that are free and open daily,” Majeski says. “At our centers and throughout the 18 reservations of our park system, we offer a variety of children’s programming and special events, the majority of which are free. We offer immersive, high-quality summer camp experiences and are very excited to be expanding our state-licensed Nature Preschool program. We truly have something to offer kids of all ages.”
Nature centers give kids a chance to explore the outdoors any time of year and give them a better understanding of their experience with nature.
Buddie found her two oldest children took a lot from their metroparks experiences.
“At a young age, Stella and Nora were enrolled at the Lake Erie Nature & Science Center class, Frogs and Polliwogs,” Buddie says. “This class taught children ages 18 months to 36 months about the changing of seasons, different kinds of weather and animals they may encounter in nature as a resident of Northeast Ohio.”
Programs like the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Junior Ranger Summer Day Camp give kids entering first through sixth grades an opportunity to learn more about the national park and its animal and plant inhabitants, and take part in active adventures that encourage appreciation for nature and stewardship for the environment.
Likewise, Common Ground Center in Oberlin offers Earth Camp for kids ages 6 to 14, which includes such experiences as horseback riding, river walking, hiking and swimming. Earth Camp has themed weeks that keep things exciting, like Eco-Adventures and Nature Survival Quest. It also has an Adventure Camp for older children (ages 12-17).
Youth and family programs at Holden Arboretum and Cleveland Botanical Garden focus on unique, exploratory nature-based activities. In July, they’re hosting a family-friendly campout at the Arboretum, which will be a night of camping-related activities such as fire building, campfire cooking, night hikes, campfire stories and more.
“It’ll be a great way to try out overnight camping in a completely supported and non-intimidating way,” Rial says. “We’ve also completely retooled our summer camp program and are now offering full-day camps at the garden, roundtrip transportation to our arboretum camps and new themes, such as From Garden to Fork and An Everchanging Planet — all with inquiry-based learning activities designed to spark creativity, fun and a connection to plants and trees.”
The Bottom Line
If it all seems a bit overwhelming and you don’t know where to begin, just start simple. Being outside — in any way — is healthy for kids.
“If it is not raining or too cold, and the chores and homework are done, then outside we go — no excuses,” says Caldwell. “The dog can always be walked, we can practice for, the next 5K we want to sign up for or there is always a new step to jump off of.”
To view our complete listing of nature camps and summer programs, go to the Northeast Ohio Parent Summer Camp Directory.