MPEC launches outdoors program for preschoolers
BY MIKE SPENCE
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
In this age, the extent of a youngster’s world may be determined by the size of the video screen he or she is looking at — or the cellphone being used.
Staffers at the Mountain Park Environmental Center in Beulah are seeking to change that culture.
They want kids to pull out the earbuds. Hang up the cellphone. Turn off the TV.
And reconnect with the great outdoors.
While it may be difficult to break today’s teens of their plugged-in habits, younger children may be more receptive to the idea.
With that in mind, MPEC — in conjunction with Pueblo City Schools (D60), Health Solutions and Catholic Charities — has begun a program to encourage preschoolers to engage in more outdoor activities.
The program, launched in October, is called the Forest School for Little Rangers. This year there are 27 classes, each with a maximum of 16 children participating. Each of those classes will meet at MPEC five times during the school for a morning of activities. The whole goal is to get the youngsters outside and teach them a little bit about nature.
The program was created by MPEC founder Dave Van Manen, who patterned it loosely after programs that were first started in Europe decades ago and then spread to the eastern part of the United States.
Van Manen for years has preached the benefits of spending time outside.
“We’ve been serving Pueblo fifth-graders for two decades,” Van Manen said. “I’ve been doing this little nature toddlers program for 10 years.”
Van Manen would meet with youngsters and their parents or grandparents once a month, and enjoyed the experience.
“I’ve wanted to do something more comprehensive,” Van Manen said. “I’ve wanted to develop a program that reached more kids.”
It wasn’t until he received a call from local teacher Tammy Montoya, who was looking for more ways to get her students outside time, that he began to focus on the Little Rangers program.
The benefits of being outside may be anecdotal, but, Van Manen said, “there is a lot of information creating data that says it is good.”
“The things (outside play) does to brain development and sensory stimulation is really, really good for them,” Van Manen said. “They say you learn 90 percent of what you learn by the time you are 5 years old. So this is important.”
Kids don’t need to go on elaborate hikes or other programs, Van Manen said. “They benefit just by being outside.”
Van Manen said it has never been more important than it is today to get our children outside.
“Research says it is not good physiologically for young brains who spend time in front of monitors and screens,” Van Manen said. “Every hour or two they spend in front of a screen is an hour or two they aren’t outside doing something like taking a walk.”
The Little Rangers program also includes sessions for parents, supervised by individuals from Catholic Charities and Health Solutions.
“We encourage them to unplug the kids some and get them away from electronics,” Van Manen said. “We’ve had a couple of generations now that are being brought up with so much electronic access.”
Others on board
The Little Foresters program is being partially underwritten by the local chapter of the United Way.
Pueblo City Schools (D60) has been a willing participant, Van Manen said.
The outdoor sessions have shown a benefit in helping youngsters and parents deal with adverse childhood experiences, Van Manen said.
The more adverse experiences a person has as a child, the greater chance they will grow up and have liver disease, smoking, diabetes, etc., according to studies by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control.
Youngsters with high ACE scores often end up costing the community as a whole. One way to combat that is by spending time in nature, Van Manen said.
“Getting them outside and challenging them away from their normal social structure has proven to be a good therapy,” Van Manen said.
The sessions begin around when the children and their parents arrive at MPEC.
“We do an opening circle, song or two for about an hour,” Van Manen said. “Parents do an activity with the kids. These kids are 2, 3, 4 or 5 years old so we give them a sheet of photographs of things to find, like pine cones, acorns.
“We come back, look at them, talk about what they are.”
Van Manen said this part is important because it promotes language development.
The children are read a book and treated to a snack. At this time, the parents go in for a class.
Other activities include arts and crafts programs and yoga.
The kids and the parents get back together and finish up whatever craft the children are working on. The group takes a short day hike, eats lunch and goes home for the day.
“It’s about a three-hour session,” Van Manen said. Most of it is held outside although there is space available inside for cold days. Classes are held Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Chilly, but fun
About a half dozen youngsters from the Sunset Elemetary preschool program, each accompanied by a parent, as well as Sunset staffers Rachel Cory and Kelsie Housman, showed up for a recent session.
Their presence was a brave thing. It was snowy and 13 degrees at MPEC. But the group was undaunted.
About the only concessions instructors Sheila Cover-Rydell and Deb Wellen made to the weather was a hot chocolate break and a fire in the fire pit.
The kids learned about mammals during the daily lesson, then took a hike during which they spotted several animal tracks and just had fun walking and exploring in the show.
After a brief break for hot chocolate, it was back outside for the kids while the parents broke away for a session with Patrick Hatchett from Catholic Charities, who did a giveand- take presentation about different parenting skills.
Once reunited, the group did a craft project, turning pine cones, pine branches and string into a garland, before eating lunch and heading home.
The kids were active and interested. The parents were engaged in their session.
The Sunset staffers who attended were enthusiastic about the program.
“This is going to help these kids a lot,” Cory said. “Hopefully, it will introduce the kids to being outside.”
Cory said she hopes the kids take that enthusiasm home and it encourages their parents to do more with them outdoors.
“It gets them outside, which will help them in a lot of ways, from learning skills to motor skills,” Cory said.
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