Wild & Curious: The 2019 ECHO Summit

Nature Play Every Day. What does that mean to you when you hear it? To some it means getting out to a park and playing on a swing set or rolling around in the grass. To others, it’s hiking trails as grand as the Rocky Mountains or as small as the woods behind your house. Or there are those that may see it as simple as playing or engaging with some part of nature in their everyday lives. The beauty is that these are all correct, and there are countless more opportunities to play, learn, and grow in nature every day – sometimes it takes just a little curiosity and imagination.

Hands-on learning through ECHO programming. Credit: Amanda Knight.

This past weekend, the Early Childhood Health Outdoors Program (ECHO) hosted the third annual Summit at the Denver Botanic Gardens. The theme? Wild and Curious – to capture and embrace the wild and curious nature of every child. The weekend kicked off with a full experiential tour of two ECHO demonstration early child care centers who have worked with the program since 2017 to redesign and activate their outdoor spaces. Both of these centers have undergone training to learn how to better engage children in the outdoors and unstructured play, including lessons in loose parts, nature art, getting familiar with insects and other crawling critters and so much more.

Kayla Nuanes, a teacher at Step by Step Child Care Development and ECHO Demonstration Site says, “We have strategically done the trainings ECHO has given us as we progressed in the playground. It started off with gardening, so we were able to introduce gardening to us as staff which then we were able to share with the children. After that it was a loose parts training, so the staff got to play with loose parts. It happened to be winter so we brought our loose parts indoors and we built things as adults that we were then able to share with the children when we were able to take that back outside.”

Educators learn hands-on training at the summit. Credit: Cait Shaughnessy.

The ECHO Summit attendees had the same opportunity to learn from a variety of breakout sessions and industry professionals on how to introduce nature and the outdoors to kids in a way that’s fun, unique, and imaginative. The Summit was all about bringing us as adults back to the basics and learning how to be kids again, so we can better understand their curiosity and the possibilities for how to bring their imagination to life. Attendees learned how to bring nature indoors when the weather isn’t ideal, how to create art using fallen leaves, sticks, and flowers, how to use loose parts in play, and how to embrace the insects and animals we find right in our backyard to encourage curiosity in place of fear.

Learning through outdoor play. Credit: Cait Shaughnessy.

However, this work is so much bigger than bringing nature to playgrounds or playing with sticks and stones, it’s about a movement to ensure children and families of all ages and backgrounds have equitable access to quality outdoor spaces. That means empowering others to speak about this work and become community ambassadors who educate and teach their family, friends, public spaces and everywhere in between how we can better serve children and families with nature. Small changes make the biggest differences in the health and future of children. Those who spend time in nature grow into adults that not only have a lifelong appreciation and love for the wildlife and wild spaces they knew as a child, but reap so many more benefits from these experiences.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis said it best: 

“We know that kids who are more physically active outside have more social interactions and are healthier. Physical activity helps children manage anxiety and depression and children who spend more time outside also develop more healthy lifelong behaviors. Exposure to gardening, for example, helps develop habits that include eating more fruits and vegetables and learning to incorporate exercise into their lives helps children avoid lifelong problems associated with obesity. So this is a really exciting partnership to be able to bring these outdoor experiential opportunities to kids that are served in early childhood centers and to other kids who are able to participate through community partnerships.”

Thank you Governor Jared Polis for your leadership to bring nature play to all kids in Colorado. Credit: Jake Byk.

The ECHO Summit is one small piece to the puzzle of educating others on how to bring daily nature play to adults and children everywhere, all while fostering a generation of healthy, passionate people who love the outdoors and the wildlife that depend on it. The National Wildlife Federation is just getting started with this work and we invite you on this journey with us to bring nature play every day to children in Colorado and beyond.

“I’m really excited about [the National Wildlife Federation’s] work and inspirational leadership that looks at wildlife conservation and wild area conservation holistically. And that includes making sure that we not only preserve and protect our ecosystems, but we also make sure our next generation of Coloradoan are able to enjoy those wild areas and truly value them as part of who they are – leading to lifelong healthy habits and improving the quality of their life,” said Governor Jared Polis.

Visit the ECHO Facebook and Twitter pages for more photos and video from the 2019 ECHO Summit: Wild and Curious.

Published: November 4, 2019