Youth are more disconnected from nature than ever before. To help change that, Interior is leading a nationwide movement to inspire millions of young people in urban areas to play, learn, serve and work in the great outdoors.
The Let’s Move! Outside program, started by First Lady Michelle Obama, funds AmeriCorps members at YMCAs in 50 cities across the country to build partnerships with community organizations and state and federal public lands in the area to get more youth outside. Here’s a few examples of how this program is changing kids’ lives:
The YMCA of Central New Mexico in Albuquerque is expanding access to the outdoors through pioneering programs. This spring, more than 150 Native American children from four different pueblos -- Cochiti, Santo Domingo, San Felipe and Zia -- visited Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. They learned about the park with hands-on activities while exploring its cone-shaped tent rock formations. These formations were created by volcanic eruptions from more than 6 million years ago. For many, it was the first time they had visited the park, which is located only an hour outside the city. The YMCA also partnered with local foster organizations to help foster families visit Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, just a few miles south of New Mexico’s largest metropolitan area.
YMCA Community Connections Corpsmember Astrid Hueglin, who works with youth outdoors, also developed an environmental education curriculum that brings YMCA’s summer day camp participants to national parks -- like nearby Petroglyph National Monument -- to go hiking and take part in service projects. Says Astrid: “I think the most important impact Let’s Move! is having is instilling environmental awareness. We feel kids need to first have a love for nature before they can become stewards and volunteers, so we're focusing on first steps to engage future stewards of the earth.”
Taylor Kibble, a Let’s Move! Outside volunteer at Gateway Region YMCA in St. Louis, went above and beyond to create an environmental afterschool program for four local elementary schools. Activities like a nature-themed jeopardy game, crafts and discussions got students excited about local plants and animals. Some of these kids hadn’t taken the time to explore the nature in their own backyards before.
Taylor took initiative to design and carry out curriculum from scratch: “It was a completely new experience for me. I did all the research on how to best engage the children.” From this experience, Kibble, 23, is inspired to continue doing community-based work with a focus on providing youth access to healthy living and healthy lifestyles, whether it be food or fitness.
Since when do parks need matchmakers? While working as a community coordinator at YMCA of Metro Atlanta, Sianna Simmons played the role of matchmaker, making connections between the city’s different YMCA locations, community partners and national parks to get kids outside. Sianna’s goal was to create partnerships to last beyond her service, like the National Park Service-themed summer camp she started.
For a month, four different YMCAs in the area rotated between four parks, spending a week each at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area and Panola Mountain (a state park). Kids went hiking with rangers, removed invasive plants, practiced archery, studied creek water samples and more, all while experiencing nature close to their urban home. “To see them experiencing life in a different way as they embraced these outdoor opportunities was so rewarding,” Sianna says. Many kids wanted to bring their families back to the parks to go hiking and have picnics.
Sianna’s work for the YMCA was her first full-time job out of college, and it led to a new career in community organizing. “I learned community engagement while serving our youth and inspiring greater health and wellness,” Sianna says. “It was the perfect training for what I’m doing now -- I owe it all to AmeriCorps, YMCA and Let’s Move! Outside.”
Minnesota’s cold and snowy winter didn’t stop high school students from learning about nature. St. Paul Preparatory School paired with Active Older Adult volunteers from the YMCA and the National Park Service for a morning of seed packaging and intergenerational storytelling. Sharing stories about rivers and parks from around the world helped the school’s international students practice English and learn new vocabulary about the outdoors. The seed packets, which each contain a personalized note and native Minnesota prairie grass seeds, are used as gifts for National Park Service volunteers and visitors in the state.
When the weather turned warmer, YMCA Community Connections Corpsmember Jeanne Salmon worked to give kids the chance to learn about local waterways. As part of YMCA Junior Park Ranger camps, youth traveled with rangers on canoes and pontoon boats on the St Croix National Scenic Riverway and Mississippi National River and Recreation Area -- a 72-mile river corridor that runs through the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan region. One group of campers who took a pontoon ride on the St. Croix River stood out: “The kids were dancing in the front of the boat and having so much fun -- I don’t think they’d ever had the opportunity to explore like that before. It was one of the most touching moments of my Americorps experience,” Jeanne says. In its transformative first year, Let’s Move! Outside Twin Cities directly engaged over 800 new youth volunteers.
Through Let’s Move! Outside Anchorage, more than 250 4th graders from five elementary schools learned about their local watersheds. The watershed education program is designed to go beyond learning in the classroom by doing watershed modeling outdoors -- all schools are within walking distance of Chester Creek. As part of field trips, students collected evidence to determine if their watershed was healthy enough to support salmon: they tested water quality and temperature, measured stream velocity and identified macroinvertebrates that provide food for salmon and other fish. Many of these kids had never been to their watershed’s estuary or realized that their creek flowed to the Pacific Ocean.
YMCA Let’s Move! Outside Coordinator Jennifer Howell led a game -- a cross between tag and an obstacle course where kids pretend to be salmon -- to teach students some of the challenges salmon face during their annual migration. “Becoming a salmon really opens their imagination to what life as a salmon might be like in a kinesthetic way, ” Jennifer says. “Understanding the salmon lifecycle and the importance of healthy salmon habitat promotes behaviors that will ensure healthy fish runs in the future. And what’s even better is when kids feel like they are having fun playing a game, they don’t even realize how much they are learning.”