By YANG ZHANG
Capital News Service
LANSING –Children in Ottawa County have a new place to enjoy outdoor activities in winter.
The County Parks Nature Education Center will offer a program for them to discover the natural beauty of winter.
Children with school groups or their families can come on weekends to watch birds, identify evergreens and learn about bugs, said Kristen Hintz, a park naturalist at the center.
The center opened in April at the Hemlock Crossing county park in Port Sheldon Township.
Twenty-one schools participated in the center’s fall discovery program in October.
“We try to have people outside as much as possible and encourage children to learn about the natural world,” Hintz said.
For example, Hintz recently led a group of fourth-graders on a hike, in which students collected leaves of varied shapes and colors of leaves to smell and identify.
They used senses of touch and smell as well as sight to learn about the environment, she said.
Hintz said it’s important for children to leave their computers, iPods and cell phones behind and go outdoors to enjoy nature and develop good recreational habits.
Mark Hoffman, chief of the marketing, education and technology division at the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (DNRE), said an active outdoor life is a healthy lifestyle.
Studies show children across the country are more obese than previous generations and less involved in physical activities.
“So getting outdoors is a good opportunity for them to try and enjoy outdoor sports that lead to more active lifestyle,” Hoffman said.
The DNRE has a variety of programs to get students outdoors.
“We are approaching younger generations who have no concept of nature and have no connection with nature,” said Mary Dettloff, communication director at DNRE.
Under the national No Child Left Inside campaign, the department works with local groups to get kids outdoors.
A new state recreation passport makes it more convenient for parents and children to visit all 98 state parks, she said.
Dettloff said state parks offer about 500 programs for children throughout the year.
The department has educational programs to improve students’ awareness, appreciation and understanding of wildlife and natural resources.
Hoffman said one example is the Salmon in the Classroom program where elementary and middle school students learn about salmon, water quality and food chains.
The department provides salmon eggs and helps teacher with equipment, Hoffman said.
About 140 schools have participated in the program, which has run for more than seven years and continues to grow, he said.
Other programs, including Project WILD and Archery in the Schools, offer teachers resources and ideas on outdoor education.
Michigan United Conservation Clubs, a statewide conservation coalition, runs a weeklong summer camp program for youth and publishes Tracks magazine for students.
Amy Trotter, the organization’s resource policy manager, said the magazine teaches students about conservation and biology and encourages them to get outside.
Western Michigan University also works to link children with nature.
The university has developed a Core Kids earth science outreach program that sends scientists to local classrooms to talk about the earth.
“We bring rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old into the classroom and talk to kids what they mean,” said Susan Grammer, the K-12 outreach coordinator for the program.
She said it’s important to let children know what’s happening on the planet, such as sea level rise and climate change.
“It will get them excited about science and interested in the natural world,” Grammer said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.