A Friendly Environment: Nature offers options for play

Hopscotch and kite flying — summer’s upon us, time to head outdoors for recreation that builds relationships and life skills.

July is National Park & Recreation Month, and local parks are just the places to maximize fun.
“We love the park,” said Jennifer Jamison of Garner, mom to Reya, 8, and Ella, 6. “We play on the playground, look for flowers and butterflies, and have even taken night hikes to look and listen.”

Photo Caption: Looking for fun? Roll a log! Environmental educator Joanne St. Clair of White Deer Park in Garner helps Reya and Ella Jamison discover nature’s treasures beneath, including a roly-poly they’ll feed to the Nature Center’s resident turtle.

At White Deer Park in Garner, Reya and Ella matter-of-factly roll a log with environmental educator Joanne St. Clair to discover nature’s treasures beneath, including fungus and a roly-poly they’ll excitedly feed to Squirt, a red-eared slider turtle housed in the Nature Center.

“It’s good for everybody’s mood, to get out of the house and move around,” said Jamison. “We have a different interaction outside together. They’re very interested in the birds, insects and plants, and enjoy science in school. We’ll encourage that.”

Boasting interpretive trails, rain gardens and a LEED Gold Nature Center, White Deer Park earned the GOLD Stewardship Development Award this year through the Greater Triangle Stewardship Development Awards Program, and earned the 2011 Outstanding Project Grand Award from the N.C. Division of Forest Resources.

Stephanie Schaffer, a certified park and recreation professional and supervisor of White Deer Park, says outdoor play and exploration offer numerous benefits to children.

“The formal definition of recreation tells us that recreation involves two things: discretionary time and freedom of choice. Recreation is not just sports,” Schaffer said.

“You can choose to walk, fish, Rollerblade, do nature journaling or sit on a park bench with a book; there’s a huge dichotomy of choices, and we try to respect that here.

Photo Caption: It’s all about family fun and a little friendly competition between siblings, as the Jamison family enjoys the natural playgrounds at White Deer Park. From left are Reya, Jennifer, John and Ella.

“As a parks department, Garner offers programs to encourage choices that are good for the body and the mind.”

From structured life cycle programs to natural playgrounds that encourage exploratory play, fun and learning go hand-in-hand here.

“Very few things have to be done just one way, which encourages imagination,” Schaffer said. “And when a child recognizes that an inchworm is camouflaged on a leaf, which it also uses for a food source, it’s an ‘a-ha’ moment and he’s enjoyed it.

“There’s science and education, a social element, health benefits including fresh air and exercise, and opportunities for kids to be creative,” she said.

Park play, note Jamison and her husband John, makes their children aware that life is more complex than it seems.

“Like the stream study we did — there’s a lot going on in there. They may not remember all the specifics, but they have a general view of that connectedness,” she said.

While White Deer Park is noted for its environmental education efforts, Schaffer says recreational programs run the gamut at Garner’s 11 parks and across Wake County, including specialty camps in the arts.

Reye and Ella are taking part in nature camp this summer, and have enjoyed town programs in basketball, soccer, T-ball and floor hockey. As a family, the Jamisons camp, hike and ride bikes.

Schaffer says at-home activities can also include backyard scavenger hunts, or an “idea jar” of outdoor activities to draw from daily.

“Catch lightning bugs or take a walk before bedtime. Pick berries, or do your homework at the park,” she added.

It’s all part of exploring the world around us.

“There’s a lot more out there than Disney and Wii, and we want our children to see it all,” Jamison said. “From the standpoint of physical and emotional health, we want them to be active and outdoors, to appreciate the world around them and give them that broader perspective.”

For information on Garner parks programs, visit garnernc.gov.

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