FLORIDA — The national forests are a natural place for children of all ages to play, explore, discover and, yes, stay healthy. Time and time again, studies show that children who spend time outdoors have better sensory awareness, improved eyesight, lower rates of obesity and a connection with nature that stays with them into adulthood.
With these goals in mind, the Osceola National Forest and the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services Columbia County 4-H Extension Office are bringing fourth graders from Lake City, Fla., to the Osceola for a hands-on, outdoor classroom adventure this fall.
“Some of the kids we bring here have never been to a national forest,” said Debra Stucki, natural resource specialist for the Osceola. “Just watching the excitement and curiosity on their faces makes my day. Getting these students outdoors and into nature is one of the most important things we do.”
Students participate in a wide variety of hands-on activities; from using a GPS to find artifacts to collecting wind, sunlight, humidity and temperature readings using a multi-meter. A team of experts teaches them the vital components of an ecosystem—biotic factors (living things like plants, animals, bacteria and fungi) and abiotic factors (non-living things such as sunlight, atmospheric gases, water and soil). Additionally, student also learn about the Leave No Trace initiative as well how to recreate responsibly in the forest.
“Being outside is such a great way for these students to have fun and learn new things,” said Columbia County 4-H Extension Agent Cindy Higgins. “You can see them connecting with their environment. For some, today’s adventure is life-changing.”
This outdoor experience, made possible by a More Kids in the Woods grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not only gets kids outside, it also helps teachers meet multiple Florida teaching standards in language arts, science and physical education.
“Some of these children may grow up to be biologists, archaeologists, landscape architects…who knows?” said Stucki. “Once we get them out here, though, let’s face it—the possibilities are endless.”