African savannas and Wisconsin state parks

Outdoor adventures with kids bring curious comparisons.

Photo of kids on overlook

“It looks like Africa,” said 8-year-old Marjorie as we drove into Governor Nelson State Park on a cold March day.

I paused, a bit thrown by her thoughtful comment. I mean, I had never heard Wisconsin and Africa being linked geographically. And even if comparisons could be made, you’d think they’d be made during a blistering heat wave and not when the ground was still frozen.

Yet, she was right.

In March, the Wisconsin savanna does look like the African savanna, a sea of tan grass with a few trees dotting the landscape. I almost expected a lion to appear, the image was so vivid in my mind.

This 8-year-old girl made a deep connection between Wisconsin and Africa that can only be made by experience. This blew me away. I love being shown how to see something in an entirely new way and sometimes it takes a child to do it.

This experience is one of many I’ve had while taking kids on outings to state properties. Over the past three years, the Goodman Community Center has partnered with the Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings program to provide outdoor opportunities to more than 300 low-income kids and their families. Outings include hiking, geocaching, eagle watching on the Wisconsin River, cookouts in the middle of winter, Maple Syrup Days at MacKenzie Environmental Education Center and more.

The Goodman Community Center provides the transportation and staff while the Sierra Club provides volunteer leadership, a healthy snack and admission fees. It’s a great arrangement that has introduced many kids to the outdoors.

In the process, they’re learning about the outdoors, having fun and gaining valuable life skills. Here are a few stories.

“Don’t let it get me”

I grew up tromping around in Pheasant Branch Creek in Middleton and visiting my mom’s childhood farm in Sauk County. I had secret hide-outs that I claimed as my own. I could get lost in play and spend hours in the outdoors unsupervised. Therefore, I thought that everyone knew how to hike and enjoy the outdoors.

Not so.

Kids today generally do not have such freedom. Their lives are more structured and free play is limited or nonexistent. Today, we have to take kids outdoors and teach them the basics.

For example, on that same, cold Africa-like trip to Governor Nelson State Park, I pointed out a red-tailed hawk to the group. Immediately, two girls covered their heads and screamed, “Don’t let it get me!”

It never occurred to me that someone could fear a hawk. For me, hawks always meant good luck. The kids also didn’t know how to walk quietly in the woods and listen for animals. On our first outing, they all ran down the path as if on a race.

Turns out, hiking in a state park is cultural. Looking for animals, being quiet and relishing the sights and sounds of the outdoors are taught by doing.

Some kids also need permission to play. I can’t tell you how many kids ask permission to do what appears to be obvious.

On a trip to Blue Mound State Park, the kids asked permission to play in huge piles of oak leaves. I can’t shake the questioning look on their faces when we got to the leaves. They needed permission. It’s as if kids are so conditioned by school that they don’t know how to explore. Outdoor adventures give kids opportunities to leave school rules behind and have fun.

Photo of kids in leaf pile Is there a better playground than a leaf pile?

Doing so, kids learn so much: they overcome fears, they learn self-reliance and perseverance, they learn how to listen and observe, they learn to recognize plants and animals, and how to stay warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. They simply learn to love the outdoors.

While the kids are learning, their parents are learning, too. Parent participation for our trips doubled last year and we expect more parents to participate this year. Outdoor activity is contagious.

Multiple studies have shown that kids who spend time outdoors do better in school and have less stress. I would further argue that outdoor skills enhance real self esteem.

“I saw that”

“Look carefully, you might see a turkey.”

Or a deer or a snake or a sandhill crane. Just fill in the blank. There’s nothing better than seeing an animal for the first time. It’s exciting and fun and makes kids happy. I think it helps kids do better in school, especially kids who struggle with academics.

I have a group of boys who consistently attend my trips. These kids have enviable energy levels that can test even the best of teachers. Outside, however, they are stimulated and respectful…most of the time. I believe it’s because they’re always “looking for a turkey.” Outside, they never know what’s going to happen. They’re a little bit anxious and a little bit excited. That’s a good mix. It keeps kids on their toes.

The boys saw a dizzying array of birds last spring at Governor Nelson State Park: sandhill cranes, catbird, hummingbird, geese, swallows and lots more.

Do you think the next time they see a crane or a hummingbird in a book, they’ll know what they are? No doubt. Do you think they’ll be proud of themselves? Confident? You bet. They’ll have the satisfaction of knowing something deep down and that could make all the difference.

“I saw that. I really did.”

I can hear it now.

“I did it”

“Do we really get to shoot a gun?” squealed 8-year-old Gavin.

Yes, yes you can.

In July, I took a group to Outdoor Skills Day at the MacKenzie Environmental Education Center in Poynette. It’s a day when kids learn how to do normally forbidden things like throw a hatchet and shoot a pellet gun among other “dangerous” outdoor skills.

Naturally, the kids couldn’t wait.

Outdoor skills are perfect for kids with high energy. I could see their confidence grow as the day went on. They loved using their minds and their bodies to succeed.

“I hit it,” beamed 5-year-old Ebrahim after hitting the target with a hatchet – just one of 50 kids who did.

Five-year-old Maria, hesitant at first about using a gun, quickly found her inner sharpshooter and racked up a string of bulls-eyes. I swear she grew two inches taller, her confidence soaring in the wake of her accomplishment.

This is real self-esteem that comes from doing something the child didn’t think she could do, not the fake self-esteem that comes from meaningless praise.

We tend to forget that even young kids can accomplish great things if given a chance.

“Can my kid go?”

Three years ago, a distraught mother asked me if 8-year-old John could come on an outing.

John’s behavior was out of control at school. I told her that the trips are meant for kids like John. He came along and he did well, very well.

Since then, John has attended more trips than any other child with no meltdowns, tantrums or outbursts. His mother shared his success with his classroom teachers and the positive feedback helped John turn the corner for the better. He’s now in fifth grade and succeeding on all levels.

I have no doubt that these trips helped John get through a difficult year, just like nature helped me get through my dad’s death when I was 10 years old.

Nature heals, soothes and inspires, which is a primary reason why I do this work.

My hope is that exposing young kids to our beautiful state properties will lay a foundation for lifelong learning and happiness. At the very least, the kids get an adventure full of wonder, fun, and perhaps even a little learning.

Diane Schwartz is a consultant, writer and outdoor education teacher at Goodman Communitiy Center in Madison. She writes a blog at Get Kids Outside. She is also the site coordinator at Schumacher Farm in Waunakee. You can contact her at Diane Schwartz.

Get Outdoors! logo

To learn more about environmental education for kids, visitEnvironmental Education for Kids (EEK!). The Wisconsin State Park System has a new initiative aimed at getting children and families to spend more time outdoors with nature. It’s fun, and it’s good for you!To learn more visit Get Outdoors! Wisconsin. To donate to the Outdoor Education Fund, send tax deductible contributions to:
Goodman Community Center
149 Waubesa Street
Madison, WI 53704
Attn: Diane Schwartz
Story and photos by Diane Schwartz, Feb 2012 Issue of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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2 thoughts on “African savannas and Wisconsin state parks

  1. I am so glad to read about this. THANK YOU and all the workers doing this great stuff! I know that kids need nature, and they need to learn about the outdoor environment from people like you who love, know it and have spent years learning and experiencing and sharing….

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