Maple Valley resident Brenda Running knew the green pastures she had known as a child growing up in the South Puget Sound had long ago been replaced by housing developments and shopping centers.
What Running did not realize is that the growth meant that many children in her own community are growing up without the opportunity to get up close and personal with nature.
Running is a Native Plant Steward who was invited to share her passion for nature in her own children’s classroom at Shadow Lake Elementary School in 2004. It became clear to her that many of students had never been introduced to the abundance of natural wonder that thrives in the own neighborhood.
“We started by planting a pumpkin patch at the school,” she remembered. “It did not take long to realize that some of the kids had probably never played in the dirt or gotten their hands dirty.”
Following her first visit to the classroom, Running began to lead students on mini-field trips into the forest adjacent to the school. That fall she helped the students plant bulbs to add color to the campus in the spring.
The program quickly evolved into an afterschool program that attracted young people from throughout the district. When budget cuts eliminated expansion of the program, Running formed her own non-profit organization known as Nature Nuts that works directly with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The expanded program is hosted on the wooded five acres where she lives.
“Many of the children come to us afraid to get dirty,” she said with a smile. “They are the ones that get themselves covered with nature all day long. Our mission is to further their joy in connecting with nature.”
The Nature Nuts program immerses students with nature, beginning with each student taking a name that reflects the part of nature that intrigues them the most. The names the children chose for themselves ranged from the most basic parts of nature like Dirt and Rock to animals like Dragonfly and Bumble Bee. Running and her husband are known as Mama and Papa Bear.
“Being outdoors not only provides the students with fresh air, it also encourages imaginative play, creativity, hand-eye coordination, balance, physical strength and mental clarity,” Running explained.
Outdoor instruction with Nature Nuts begins with safety. Running said it’s fun to know what kind of berries in the forest are edible, but it’s more important to know what plants and berries should not be eaten.
The authentic play curriculum, said Running, was developed by internationally acclaimed Forest Kindergarten teacher Erin Kenny. Nature Nuts students are responsible for guiding a great deal of their own lessons.
“We have thrown out an entire day of prepared instruction when students ask about a subject that intrigues them,” she said. Running described the process as “interest-led learning.”
Dozen Years of Nature
In just 12 years, Nature Nuts has grown from a one-day classroom experience into a year-round array of classes and summer camps for children ages 3 to 9. Parents are invited to join The Family Nature Club that offers free guided hikes–rain or shine–for children and their families on the second Saturday of every month.
The summer day camps are limited to eight campers per session. The limited enrollment ensures a ratio of one instructor for every four students. All five weeks of this year’s sessions were sold out just days after they were posted on the organization’s website (naturenuts.org).
A typical day at camp this year involved an active day of hiking, discovering signs of wildlife and building forts.
“At Nature Nuts, we have fun exploring the forest with friends from treetops to dirt and puddles with slugs and bugs and squirrels. And everything in between,” said Running.
Running uses her training as an instructor for students with special needs to accommodate students with different abilities. Running emphasized that the organization holds fundraisers every fall to fund scholarships to assure that the full scope of outdoor activities are available to all children.
The Forest School also uses an extensive collection of Native American and artifacts from nature—including feathers and the skulls of small animals—to encourage students to employ all of their senses.
The growth of Nature Nuts has not been without its own set of challenges. Running said her plans for lessons taught around an open campfire were derailed last summer when the DNR declared a burn ban after fires blackened thousands of acres of forest east of the Cascades.
Nature Nuts and the year-round Forest School now serves 500 students from across the South Sound. Classes are currently held in a forest shelter and around the fire pit, but Running hopes to have a cabin completed before this coming spring.
Earlier this year Running helped start another non-profit group called the American Forest Kindergarten Association (forestkindergartenassociation.org). The new organization was formed to serve as a resource for families to find forest kindergartens in their own communities.
“We feel that all kids deserve the opportunity to cultivate passions and develop a strong connection with nature. Nature Nuts programs provide a space that nurtures these skills and interests.”
Dan Aznoff was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the toxic waste crisis. He is now a freelance writer who lives in Mukilteo dedicated to capturing the cherished stories of our lifetime so they can be preserved for future generations. He can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.