Outdoor Education Programs

Petting zooIn summer, when the days are longer, the temperatures higher, and the children are spending more time outdoors, it makes sense for early education to move outdoors, too. There’s no better place to learn about the outdoors than in the outdoors while at the same time re-connecting your child and yourself with the natural world.

Research shows that the preschool years are important in the environmental education of children. Not only do they learn their place in the ecosystem, but they develop a sense of wonder about nature. Without these early experiences, a child can grow up with a distaste for or even fear of the natural world. In her captivating book, The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson writes:

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

You can be that adult in your own backyard, or you can explore any of these programs around Alaska.

Alaska has many outdoor programs for children, some involving organized camping, some accentuating conservation and preservation of the environment. Hands-on learning, where students use a variety of senses, is the hallmark of most of them. Some are week-long camps, others are drop-in parent-child programs.

  • Alaska Center for the Environment Trailside Discovery Program
    Now in its 27th year, the Trailside Discovery Program emphasizes interactive, hands-on outdoor experiences where participants “slog through bogs, explore forests, and tread gently across trails to learn about nature while being immersed in it.” Week-long programs titled “Furry Friends” or “Busy Bugs” take place in the Campbell Creek Science Center in Anchorage and the surrounding Campbell Tract. A unique program, “Spirit Keepers,” “emphasizes Native Alaska arts, culture, and folklore while teaching respect for the natural world,” with activities led by Native elders and youth.
  • Camp Fire USA Caterpillar Sessions
    CampFire USA Alaska Council offers a day camp for 4 to 5 year-olds at Camp Si-La-Meo on the Alaska Pacific University campus in Anchorage.
  • Northern Alaska Environmental Center Nature Sprouts
    This Fairbanks summer program for 4 to 5 year-olds is designed to help children experience the wonders of Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge through sensory exploration, discovery hikes, fun-filled games, songs, and simple craft projects.
  • Alaskan Coastal Studies Knee-High Naturalist
    In Homer, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies offers a weekly program for children ages 2 to 4. The preschool story hour includes a hike or craft activity every Friday, June through August.
  • Eagle River Nature Center Kneehigh Naturalist Programs
    Year-round Kneehigh Naturalist Programs for 3 to 5 year-olds take place outdoors in all weather. Their philosophy: “To introduce children playfully to learning about the natural world around them, and to form positive bonds with their surroundings, including plants, animals and other people. How much learning a child absorbs will depend on their age and readiness. Initially Kneehigh is all about playing, exploring, and having a positive experience outdoors.”

Visit the Children & Nature Network to learn more about the national movement to reconnect children with nature. Richard Louv, founder of the Network and originator of the term “nature-deficit disorder,” spoke in Anchorage and Fairbanks in 2012.

Best Beginnings recognizes that parents are a child’s first teachers, so remember to check out the early learning activities on this website, such as Colorful Nature Collages or Cool Painting Tools, that will take you and your child into the natural world, as well as many additional resources for exploring nature. For local outdoor events and news, check out Get Outdoors Alaska.

This article originally appeared in the Best Beginnings July 2009 E-newsletter. Please refer to our Content Reproduction Policy if you are interested in reproducing content provided on this Web site.

Photo by Camp Fire Alaska; Caterpillar Session “Petting zoo.”