- Associated Press - Thursday, July 9, 2015

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - When she’s at home, Rachel Labi spends most of her free time indoors - reading, watching TV and playing on the computer. But at Junior Nature Club, she is perfectly at ease traipsing through the woods, exploring and examining toads.

“It’s really fun,” said Rachel, 12, who will start West Lafayette Junior High School in the fall. “You learn a lot and you get to explore, and there are treasure hunts and a bunch of different activities.”

Letting children get a little dirty is precisely the goal of the club, which was founded three years ago by Zonda Bryant and the Sycamore Audubon Society. After the club took off, Bryant launched a nonprofit, Hands of the Future, which oversees the club and other efforts to expose children to nature.

“The goal is to give the kids the chance to experience nature - to form a bond that I think will last a lifetime,” said Bryant, who spent weekends on a horse ranch as a child and raised her five children in the country.

“A lot of these kids don’t have that opportunity anymore,” she said. “They’ve become a culture of the indoors, and so my goal is to introduce them to their world, basically.”

The club is free and open to second- through seventh-graders. In August, the club will expand to serve students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Students meet at the Lilly Nature Center every three weeks for games, snacks and adventures in the Celery Bog Nature Area.

The budget for the Junior Nature Club was just under $30,000 this year, including insurance, staffing and supplies, Bryant said. It was paid for by a grant from the Roy Whistler Foundation. She still is looking for a funding source for next year’s programming.

At the final meeting of the year last week, children started with a little faux fishing off the back deck, catching magnetic fish with their metal bait.

Then they headed out into the woods. The group wandered along the paths, stopping whenever someone saw something interesting. As Bryant, who has a master’s degree in forestry, stood beside a fallen tree telling the club about the woods, a child spotted a tiny toad and immediately the explorers were transfixed. They took turns holding it and turned over logs to hunt for more.

The unstructured ease of the program is precisely why Karen Koors believes it’s a good fit for her two sons, who both have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. At the Junior Nature Club, no one minds if they get distracted.

“They both love it. My one isn’t very energetic in getting out here, but once you get him out here, he has fun,” she said. “I think a lot of kids could benefit from this.”

Although the program is free, Bryant is concerned that some families from Lafayette don’t participate because it is across the Wabash River. In order to reach more children, Hands of the Future staff are hoping to work with schools to build living schoolyards - nature-rich sites on elementary school grounds.

“Nature is very important to all children,” Bryant said. Research shows that it is especially important for disadvantaged children, she said.

Three Tippecanoe School Corp. elementary schools have expressed interest in the living schoolyards program, Bryant said. She hopes to begin planning with the schools in the fall, and break ground in the spring.

Hands of the Future members also harbor a dream of creating a “children’s forest” in Lafayette, but they have not found a home for it, Bryant said. Last year, they campaigned to create such at forest at Berlovitz Woods. Plans fell through because there was competition for the space, she said.

As Hands of the Future works to expand nature spaces for children, Junior Nature Club is attracting growing crowds. The program serves more families each year, as participants spread the word.

Bryant said that she can see the changes in children who come to the program regularly.

“Some of these kids, you get them out here, and they don’t know how to play outside,” said Bryant.

But with a little more time in nature, she added, “they’re starting to be more inventive and create and cooperate. … I’m really enjoying seeing the results.”

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Source: (Lafayette) Journal & Courier, https://on.jconline.com/1Ksxhvf

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Information from: Journal and Courier, https://www.jconline.com


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