We don't have many neighborhoods in Homer. We're a small, spread-out, Alaskan town with many large yards and few sidewalks sandwiched between the ocean and a shrubby bluff of sandstone. On the outskirts of town, few people make an effort to gather with distant neighbors, and kids are rarely seen playing together in groups outdoors. Where houses are close together, next-door neighbors hardly interact with or even get to know each other. The vacant lots, side streets, and climbing trees are typically quiet...nothing like communities of my youth.
I've been providing Kids in Nature
workshops for families in Homer over the past four years and have noticed that participant parents and families consistently belong to one of two camps: 1) outdoor or natural families looking for new information about local play spaces or fun outdoor activities or 2) parents with little or no experience in nature who want to learn where and how to play with their kids outside. At these events, I try to meet many of these expectations, and as a group we share experiences and ideas about overcoming barriers like bears, moose, winter darkness, and mistrust of strangers. And we've, without much success until recently, tried to address the lack of a local, family-oriented play network - few outdoor group play opportunities and no organized way to meet up with other families to spend time in nature.
However, the winds of change are blowing through our community. We now have a very active and growing coalition of residents - Nature Rocks Homer
- striving to get kids and families to spend more time in nature. With over 100 members from all walks of life and vocation, including many natural families, this ad hoc group has accomplished wonderful things in the past year. They've distributed 30 used and repaired bicycles to local kids through the newly formed Bikes Rock Homer
. With funding from a US Fish & Wildlife Service grant, they've provided 9 disadvantaged teens plus adult chaperones with a guided wilderness viewing and hiking adventure trip. They premiered the outstanding and internationally acclaimed film Play Again
and hosted two extremely well-attended Mud Games at The Wallow
. And they offered a unique Growing Family Nature Clubs
event on April 22nd, providing resources and tools to create outdoor play networks.
Inspired by this Earth Day workshop, two participant mothers teamed up to create a Facebook venue for Homer moms with young children to connect for outdoor romps. This expanding group of families meets periodically at trailheads and parks in our area and have quickly become leaders in a movement to enhance and rebuild local playgrounds with natural play components. In the past month, families visiting Homer's old 'toddler park' have thrilled at the new addition of small boulders for climbing, an in-ground slide, multi-level 'stepping stones' of wood, bridges spanning little ditches, a fort of alder branches, and an enlarged sand play area. More kids play at this park now than ever before, and community support and energy have blossomed for rebuilding the City's largest playground for all ages as a natural play area. Residents are looking at local parks and wild zones in new ways, and 'nature play' are the new buzzwords around town. Unsupervised kids have been spotted exploring our little downtown salt marsh and its creeks for the first time in ages. The local feed shop is selling more aquarium nets (aka 'bug nets'), newly acquainted families are meeting up for outside fun, and parents around town eagerly anticipate receiving the latest Nature Rocks Homer Seasonal Calendar of Outdoor Family Activities
It may be difficult to gauge progress on collaborative efforts to reconnect children with nature, but it seems like in our town the needle is moving in the right direction thanks to support and momentum from our natural families.