EPNA Interview #3: Kim Silva, Friends of Outdoor School

This is a new series of posts in which I interview Portland personalities that are making a difference in connecting children of this region to nature. Richard Louv, the premier voice in the children and nature movement, has written several times about our natureful city. In Last Child in the Woods, he remarked on Portland’s Greenspaces program’s “call for the creation of a regional system of parks, natural areas, greenways, and trails for both wildlife and people;” PSU students’ research on possible greenroof design in downtown; and the 40-Mile Loop. In The Nature Principle, Louv commented on research in Portland on the health benefits of nature (outdoor “prescriptions”); profiled a teacher who worked as an assistant for a study of small mammals in an urban green space (Marshall Park); described Mike Houck’s work to make room for nature in a big city at a time when the consensus was that nature and wildlife were elsewhere, not within where people dwell; and how the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge provides access to nature via the bus system. There are other mentions of Portland, too. Patrick, Catherine, and I feel lucky to live in a city that values what the Earth gives to it. Moreover, we feel privileged to share this city with folks who strive to not only instill a love of nature into its citizens’ minds and hearts, but in providing better access to that nature.

Please contact me at darwinsbulldog@gmail.com if you have a suggestion for someone to be interviewed for this series.

Today I talk to Kim Silva, Executive Director at Friends of Outdoor School.

Hi Kim, welcome to Exploring Portland’s Natural Areas. Would you please share with us your background – education, jobs, etc. that relate to nature in some way?

Although I’ve been involved with nonprofits and causes close to my heart my entire life, I’ve spent the last 12 years as a development professional in the nonprofit sector. I’ve worked as the Development Director for Friends of Trees, Hoyt Arboretum Friends, and and have spent the last 6 years with Friends of Outdoor School. My passion is supporting organizations that take positive action to protect our environment, education, and our communities. I am convinced that education is the key to preventing environmental and community degradation. I believe that environmental health, human health, and community health go hand in hand. If we can prevent expensive, difficult to solve problems in the first place, then we don’t have to use our resources to fix what is broken. Instead, we can concentrate our efforts on inspiring joy, peace, and connection with nature and each other.

Describe for us how you connect Portland kids to nature. Tell us about your programs.

Friends of Outdoor School is dedicated to providing the Outdoor School experience to all students in Oregon (someday, the world!). Outdoor School is the ideal opportunity for students to step outside the confines of their lives, to discover their own unique talents, gifts, and passions. The community and leadership aspects of Outdoor School make that even much more impactful. Because it is part of the sixth grade science curriculum, Outdoor School offers students who would otherwise not have the ability (due to physical, financial, familial, transportation, or other limitations) to access nature-based activities. Oftentimes, Outdoor School is the first time many students have ever been outside their own neighborhoods or near nature other than their school yard. The sixth graders are mentored one-on-one by high school students, providing a personalized educational experience that most children have never had the luxury of enjoying. What is so magical about Outdoor School is that each person is valued for his or her authentic, true self. There are few things more powerful than providing a safe, accessible, nurturing atmosphere for children to explore nature, and be who their really are. It is truly life-changing, especially for the most vulnerable children.

Friends of Outdoor School is also partnering with Synergo and Centennial School District to offer a summer day camp to children ages 4-10. At Adventure WILD, based in the Outdoor School mentor model, students engage with nature in a fun, easy, hands-on way. Last week, I visited a group of campers catching tiny frogs near a pond that was surrounded by cattails. The sun was shining, the air was clean, and the kids were rapt in concentrated excitement, outside, away from the television. It was wonderful!

Do you have any moments in nature from your childhood that left an impression on you?

I have too many to count. Growing up in California, I spent most of my days outside, without shoes, getting stung by bees and trying to steal snacks from my grandparents’ garden. My grandpa instilled a sense of wonder for nature in me. I called Grandpa an environmentalist in Republican’s clothing. He called himself a conservationist, a true conservative. That tickles me. He, my sister, and I were deeply bonded because of the time we spent discovering nature together.

My grandpa took my sister and me fishing, hiking, camping, boating, swimming, rock hounding, shell hunting, wave jumping, critter catching….all the really cool things you can do outside. My grandma wasn’t too excited about being outside in the dirt and bugs, so Grandpa was thrilled to have two little girls willing to do all those things with him.

I have many truly happy memories from the many summers we spent camping near Yosemite with my grandparents. There was an incredible nurse log a short hike into the woods. My sister and I loved to go there with my grandpa to see the thousands of green, red, and yellow lady bugs scurrying all over the log and flying away to whatever woodland lady bugs do. The darn things would bite, so we learned quickly not to touch them. HA! My grandpa would roll the log a bit with his boot, so we could discover the snakes, spiders, and other creepy crawlies hidden in the dark underbelly. It was incredible to notice year to year how the log would change and what the new plants or critters were each year.

I also spent many hours at the San Diego beaches with my grandparents, collecting shells and tormenting hermit crabs. My retirement goal is to get back to living at the ocean. It is the only place where I feel like I can truly breathe. My allergies are clear and all my worries are carried away with the wind. Deep breath!

Do you have children yourself? If so, tell me about their relationship to nature.

Yes. I have a son, Hugh, who is 4. With our overly busy schedules, I don’t get as much time as I would like getting him connected with nature myself. I just make sure to get out of the house to play every day. If nothing else, I want him to know he has options outside… and those options are more fun than the indoor options.

Fortunately, he has a wonderful preschool that recently built a beautiful, engaging nature garden. Last spring, the nature garden was certified as a Nature Explore Classroom by the Arbor Day Foundation. It is like the children have their own little natural area that they can freely explore, yet has boundaries to keep them safe (i.e. out of traffic and drowning hazards). I love seeing how the children prefer the nature garden to the play structure play ground. It lifts my heart to see them attracted to feeling the earth instead of monkey bars. Hugh and I delight in talking about all the wonderful things he and his friends do in the garden – getting dirty by burying himself with soil is his favorite, of course. We discuss the rocks, puddles, pine needles, soil, sticks (the bigger, the better), trees, plants, and critters. Next year, the preschool is planning to connect the property’s little seasonal spring to the garden, so that the children may experience natural water cycles first hand. I’m thrilled that the teachers are doing “circle time” (books and discussion) outside in the nature garden this summer, instead of inside the “walled” classrooms.

Hugh and I also love to plant flowers and vegetables in our home garden, watch the plants grow, then eat the vegetables… usually before we even make it back into the house to build a salad. Seeing the world through a small child’s eyes is fascinating. It is so fun to rediscover things about nature that I don’t notice anymore. He is astounded that a pill bug rolls when you touch it, or that a snail makes a shiny track while eating our beans, or that the magnolia drops pods (called Hugh Pods in our family) several times a year.

I’m committed to ensuring that Hugh has a respect and reverence for nature. I’ve been shopping for a Kindergarten for him, and it has proven to be a difficult task. There are wonderful programs around our home, but finding an affordable option with space is a challenge.

Describe for us something about Portland’s focus on nature that you think is valuable for the city’s youth.

I think it is exciting that youth have so many opportunities to connect to nature, formally and informally, in Portland. Few cities are like Portland, committed to making sure that every citizen has a natural space within walking distance of home. That is so cool! I think the most difficult part is just getting people up and outside. No matter someone’s comfort level with the outdoors or physical ability, there is an organization that can help connect that person to the local flora and fauna.

The summers offer the most wonderful opportunities to get outside as a family to enjoy our parks and green spaces. Whether you are taking in a free concert in the park, ride bikes along the river, seeing a plan in an outdoor amphitheater, or trying a new cuisine at a local festival, there is always something fun and exciting to do outdoors in Portland in the summer. We love to have a picnic with family and friends every week at Willamette Park and Sellwood Park concerts – great music, nutritious food, a beautiful view of the river, and totally free. What more can one ask? I feel blessed to live here.

At the office, we are deeply involved with The Intertwine, a coalition of organizations, businesses, and individuals who want to help get people engaged in our region’s nature. It is imperative that children learn how their own actions or inaction will affect their abilities to live happy, healthy lives. I think that a lot of people think it is too difficult or scary to go into nature, that they have to know how to kayak or be able to hike the Wildwood Trail (which is totally cool, of course), but they don’t. They just need to step outside, open their senses, and discover nature. If they want to get support or learn or discover more, there are dozens of wonderful programs through the parks providers, nonprofits, and businesses that would be happy to facilitate such experiences, and many are even free. How cool is that?

Is there anything missing that you would like to see happen in Portland?

My dream is to see the Oregon Environmental Literacy Plan (which includes a full week of Outdoor School, of course) fully implemented and fully funded across the State of Oregon. There is no reason why a state like Oregon and a city like Portland, reputed to be so environmentally friendly, shouldn’t have this already happening. Environmental education (and art!) should be interwoven into everything we do and teach children. As school budgets shrink, so does environmental education. That isn’t okay.

People love what they understand. Our children need to be engaged in nature to understand and love it. Once they understand nature, they can protect it. How can they be expected to make good decisions for all of us, if they don’t have the knowledge needed to make such decisions? Home is the first place and school is the second place that children should learn an environmental and conservation ethic. School is ideal because it is the only place children are required to attend and accessible to all. How cool would it be, if students got the chance to have a week-long, residential experience several times throughout their school careers? From there, the State’s agricultural, outdoor retail, science, technology, food and drink, and tourism industries would thrive, helping our economy to thrive.

Do you have any advice for parents looking to connect their kids to nature?

Get outside! You don’t need any special gear or special abilities, just get outside to see what type of nature is in your neighborhood. Kids learn better, are healthier, and are happier, if they just get to be outside more. It doesn’t matter what you do, just get them outside, away from computers, video games, and television for a while. Just being outside inspires kids to move, and that can also help parents live healthier lifestyles. Jump in puddles. Look at all the different trees. Search for bugs. Your kids will love it and so will you! When you’ve discovered your own neighborhood, take a walk, bike ride, or bus ride to another neighborhood to see what kind of nature is there.

I also find that growing plants with children, especially edible plants, to be very rewarding. The children love to see that they are able to grow something that can provide for themselves and their families. It is very empowering. Start with just one pot, one packet of seeds, and some soil. If the whole family is interested, there are neighborhood gardens that are very exciting and interesting.

Finally, create a journal of drawings, poems, stories, photos, whatever you want to document what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste (Carefully!) in your adventures. It will be something that your child will treasure for a lifetime.

What is you favorite natural space in our city?

We have so many wonderful places in Portland. I love Tyron Creek State Park and Tualatin Hills Nature Park because they are easy for my son to manage, but my favorite spot outdoors is my own yard. It is our home, so I feel most connected to it. We have all types of beautiful and interesting plants and trees, lots of critters, easy access to water, and we are free to manipulate and experience it as we wish. Our magnolia blooms right around Hugh’s birthday, and it is spectacular. Sitting under that tree on a sunny day with a cool drink watching my son dig in the garden for worms is my idea of paradise.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Kim! I can only hope that when my son enters the sixth grade in five years, that Outdoor School will still be around.

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8 Responses to EPNA Interview #3: Kim Silva, Friends of Outdoor School

  1. Kim Silva-DuBose says:

    Thanks so much, Michael! :)

  2. Kate says:

    Yay Kim! WIth people like her in this world fighting for Outdoor School I feel confident that it will be around for many years to come :)

  3. Tony Deis says:

    Kim is the best. She connects the field of awesome. That makes her doubly awesome!

  4. Mark Skolnick says:

    Agreed! Kim is a superlative fundraiser and a passionate advocate for Multnomah ESD’s Outdoor School. Way to go Kim!

  5. Margaret J. Eng says:

    Keep fighting for Outdoor School. It is inclusive and introduces kids whatever their ability, socio-economic status or disability to. Nature.

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