Have you ever enjoyed the experience of walking along a trail in the forest — the sensation of the soil beneath your feet, the sound of birds chirping, the smell of fresh air, or the sight of tree limbs swaying gently in a cool breeze? While many people have experienced the physical and mental health benefits of a hike in the forest firsthand, studies have confirmed what we know intuitively — getting out into nature is good for your health. Nature activities may be especially important for children; being outside encourages physical activity, learning about the environment and having fun.
“It’s been shown time and time again that just spending time in nature is really important for children,” said Jennifer Tato, wildlife education coordinator at the New Mexico Wildlife Center (NMWC). “It helps them with communication, with building relationships and with their own sense of self-confidence.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico (BCBSNM) understands that nature play is important in supporting the development of social, emotional and physical health for children. For three years, BCBSNM has supported the Nature Playtimes program offered by Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) in Los Alamos. As a result of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Families® (HKHF) grant in 2018, the program was expanded to NMWC in Española.
Created for children ages 5 and under, Nature Playtimes provides outdoor activities — including hiking, games and stories — for kids and their guardians at no cost. Tato explained that the grant from BCBSNM helped NMWC provide the program to families who may not normally have the resources to access such activities.
“It’s a time for parents to come out with their kids and explore nature here at the New Mexico Wildlife Center,” Tato said.
One Nature Playtimes event at NMWC featured a seed capsule activity where children filled egg cartons with potting soil and planted bean and native wildflower seeds. Another station designed for the younger kids allowed children to observe and sort different types of beans with magnifying glasses and tweezers, helping children learn about shapes, colors and counting by using their senses.
“Inherently, they’re learning through play,” said Tato.
The one-hour program is offered at PEEC every week, and NMWC offered biweekly events throughout the summer. NMWC is also home to 33 animals that help teach children and the community about native wildlife and local ecosystems.
Ultimately, the program is encouraging children to spend time outdoors and develop a lifelong appreciation of nature. Just ask some of the children who have attended the program.
“If you water the plants and put them in the sun, they’ll grow big,” said one child working with soil and seeds outside at NMWC. And, as another child said, “I love the plants and the animals.”
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