First Session of Annual ‘Kids Count’ Focuses on Children in Nature

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By Stefanie Jackson – Smart Beginnings Eastern Shore (SBES), an organization that advocates for the health, well-being, and education of children, hosted the first virtual session of its annual Kids Count forum Feb. 23, coordinated by Barbara O’Hare and titled “It’s Our Nature – Healthy Outdoor Activities for Kids on the Eastern Shore.”

“There’s no doubt that outdoor activities help us all stay physically healthy and can have a real positive impact on our mental health, our mood, our well-being, and that exploring and learning about the wonders of nature fosters children’s curiosity and creativity,” said Roberta Newman, SBES and Kids Count coordinator.

“But an additional benefit for adults is that exploring nature with children often leads to special moments we will cherish for a lifetime,” she said.

Four guest speakers shared their ideas on getting kids outdoors to move and learn, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eastern Shore Soil and Water Conservation District Education Director Julie Head

Getting five to 15 minutes of sunlight every day can improve physical and mental health, vision, and sleeping habits, Head stated.

Sunlight helps the body make Vitamin D, which is important for bones, blood cells, and a healthy immune system.

A strong immune system helps the body fight off colds, the flu, and even COVID-19.

Vitamin D helps reduce inflammation, which plays a role in health conditions such as high blood pressure and cancer.

Being outside in the sunlight also boosts production of serotonin and endorphins in the brain, improving one’s mood and reducing stress and anxiety.

Spending time outdoors actually helps protect the eyes. Studies conducted in Australia and Taiwan compared children who played indoors with children who played outdoors, and the children who played outdoors had lower rates of nearsightedness after both the first and second year of the study.

Sun exposure, especially in the morning, helps the body regulate its internal clock and improves sleeping habits.

Going outdoors also can alleviate mental fatigue and improve memory and concentration.

One study showed that students who took a walk outside performed 20% better on a short-term memory test, and another showed that students with ADHD were able to concentrate better after spending 20 minutes in a park.

Studies also suggest spending time outdoors can improve problem-solving skills by up to 50% and stimulate the imagination.

Head recommended that children should spend one hour a day in active play such as running, climbing, riding a bicycle, or playing ball.

There also are fun outdoor activities that can be done in one’s own backyard and help young children develop early learning skills.

For example, have children answer the question, “What is all around me?” and describe what they can see, hear, feel, and smell. Or have the children draw pictures of what they see and where each thing is located.

Children can collect sticks, leaves, and other outdoor items and learn basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and probability by counting the items, sorting them into different groups, and discussing and comparing the groups.

Another activity Head suggested is giving the children color sample cards from a store’s paint department and have the children match the colors to things outside. Older children can be given more colors with more subtle variations.

Head Start Eastern Shore Lead Teacher Sharon Wilson

Wilson shared ideas for outdoor activities children can do and described the physical and cognitive skills each activity promotes.

Children like taking nature walks, riding bicycles, and having fun on the playground, where they can run, jump, hop, skip, bend, and climb, she said. These activities build gross motor skills, meaning the children move their limbs, especially their legs.

They build both gross and fine motor skills when engaging in parachute play, working together to wave their arms up and down and shake the parachute and picking up the toy balls that were placed on the parachute and then launched into the air and onto the ground.

Other outdoor activities appropriate for young children include playing with sidewalk chalk, which helps develop writing and drawing skills; playing hop scotch, which gets them jumping, hopping, and counting; and relay racing, which gets kids running, participating in healthy competition, and team-building.

Kiptopeke State Park Ranger Stan Osmolenski

Aka “Ranger Stan,” Osmolenski highlighted some of the outdoor opportunities that can be found at the Shore’s state park, national wildlife refuges, and natural area preserves.

Kiptopeke State Park offers a visitor’s center, a beach on the Chesapeake Bay, fishing, hiking, biking, and picnic areas. There are about three miles of beach and five miles of trails, and all trails are accessible by bicycle except the boardwalks. Entrance is free but there is a charge for parking.

Self-guided activities available include becoming a junior ranger, scavenger hunts, geocaching, and trail quests.

Ranger-guided activities that will be offered this spring and summer (while adhering to social distancing guidelines) include hikes, pirate treasure hunts, owl watching (Owl Prowl), art in the park, and kayaking. All activities except kayaking are free, and a full list of programs can be found on the Kiptopeke State Park website.

Kiptopeke State Park offers field trips with free ranger-guided activities for groups of 10 to 50. Parking for school buses is also free, and activities can be tailored to the Virginia Standards of Learning.

Osmolenski added that not everyone knows visitors can stay overnight in the park. Available rentals include cabins, lodges (for up to 16 people), campsites for tents and RVs, and yurts.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge at the southern tip of the peninsula has a public boat launch, a lighthouse observation deck, an army bunker, a pollinator garden, and a rails-to-trails site. The trail begins at the refuge and ends several miles north, near the Cape Center.

The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge boasts a beach on the Atlantic Ocean, wild ponies, birdwatching, fishing, crabbing, hiking, biking, and the Assateague lighthouse, which is open to the public.

The Shore also has four natural area preserves, which do not offer public facilities but are recommended for observing and enjoying nature: the Cape Charles Natural Area Preserve, in Cape Charles; Magothy Bay, near the southern tip of Seaside Road; Mutton Hunk, in Accomack County; and Savage Neck Dunes, near Eastville.

The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve Outreach and Education Coordinator Margaret Van Clief

Van Clief said the Brownsville Preserve, in Nassawadox, is free and open daily from sunrise to sunset, with well-marked parking. No facilities are available but the trail is accessible to wheelchairs, strollers, and bicycles. Friendly, leashed dogs are welcome.

The trail, called the Meadow Walk, is a mown grass path that loops one-tenth of a mile through a native pollinator meadow.

A second trail of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), called the Horse Island Trail, is located in Oyster.

The Brownsville Preserve receives funding for educational programs held throughout the year for students in grades five, seven, and 10.

To conduct their studies, fifth graders get to explore salt marshes, seventh graders go kayaking, and 10th graders boat to Parramore Island.

TNC also offers summer nature camps for children ages six to eight and nine to 12, with plenty of scholarships available, Van Clief said.

She told parents to watch for more information on TNC’s Fifth Grade Fridays, coming this spring. (This year’s program likely will be held on Wednesdays and open to additional grades.)

The program is free, including a bag lunch, and follows all COVID-19 guidelines.

Fifth Grade Fridays present an opportunity to take a break from virtual learning screen time and explore a local park.

Popular with all ages are the Brownsville Preserve’s free public events, Open Farm Day (held every spring) and its Holiday Open House, each attended by about 200 to 400 people.