EPNA Interview #1: Chrissy Larson, Portland Parks & Recreation

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 Chrissy Larson, an environmental educator with Portland Parks & Recreation. She has implemented several programs for PP&R to teach children about nature, including Nuts About Nature.

Hi Chrissy, 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?

I’m Chrissy Larson, (also known as Teacher Balsam), and I work with Portland Parks and Recreation, in the EE office, which is part of the City Nature Division. I have an undergraduate degree in Biology and a M.Ed. from the University of Minnesota, Duluth in Environmental Education with a concentration in Early Childhood. I have been teaching Outdoor & Environmental Education since 1998. I taught outdoor science, nature & conservation lessons to children ages 4-15 in Western New York, Southern California, Northern California, Michigan and Minnesota before landing in Portland in 2007. After studying the importance of nature play in my graduate studies and doing two years of research on the cognitive benefits of unstructured play in natural areas, I started working with some amazing people at Portland Parks who believed in my dream of nature preschool classes. Nuts About Nature had its first season in the spring of 2008. I ran a 6-week class at Hoyt Arboretum that had seven preschool-aged students in it. Since that first season, we have added classes for 3-year olds, a homeschool class, and an after-school program. During the school year the Nuts About Nature program now serves about 50-75 students every week.

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

I am in the business of connecting young children to nature, but I also feel that “nature connection” has become sort of a buzz word lately, and I think it’s important that nature educators start to define what “nature connection” really means. Whether I am exploring with 3-year olds, teaching skills to seasoned 7-year olds, or leading a Ladybug Walk my goals are always the same: to put children into a natural space where they can find ways to physically manipulate, play with, collect, and become completely engaged with the natural materials and the people with whom they are playing. In the Nuts About Nature program we aim to combine developmentally appropriate skills with nature themes, but we also find ways to use the natural props around us in our play, our exploration, and our experiments. This means in some ways a class might look very much like a preschool classroom – children are eating snacks, sitting and listening to a story, singing songs and doing crafts. The difference is the snack might take place while standing because it’s been raining all night and the song might come out of nowhere because we found a millipede under a log along the trail. Complete engagement with nature means that children have such a meaningful experience that they begin to associate the natural spaces around them with memories of play, imagination, wonder and spontaneity, and they are eager to find those spaces again and become engaged over and over.

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

I remember one summer when I was 10 years old, and I joined my friend Kelly’s family for a camping trip at a local state park. Kelly and I got bored one morning and decided to take a little hike on one of the nature trails. As we walked we explored sort of randomly and then found a bench where we decided to sit and waste some time. We got involved in our silly conversation and sat idly on the bench for some time, not noticing that at some point a large female deer had moseyed down the trail and was standing just behind us. As I was talking to her, I caught a glimpse of the deer behind her, and quickly shushed her. We both turned slowly, and the deer just stood there, eating things along the trail. We were both in awe of the creature – one that normally seems fleeting along the side of the road as we drive along at 55 mph, but that day, the deer just stayed nearby. We all breathed the same air for almost 20 minutes that day, and for some reason, having a chance to be that close to an animal so full of elusiveness and grace was life changing. That was the first time in my life that I found I had a craving to return to the same spot to remember the moment. It was also the time in my life when I started to tread more lightly when out in the woods, learning quickly how amazing it was to observe a wild animal in its own space.

Do you have children yourself?

I do not have children myself, but I have a lot of children who do programs for numerous seasons in a row. This spring I hung out with children who were almost 8 years old that I started working with when they were starting preschool at age 4. It’s so wonderful to get some of the experience parents have of watching children grow and change, (and also stay the same.)

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

In any Portland Parks Environmental Education program, there are certain goals we have as educators. First, we are outside, rain or shine. At first, this might not seem like a very important goal, but once a child experiences what it really means to be outdoors in the cold, the heat, the rain, the snow, the wind and the breezy sunshine, only then can they really understand the true diversity of the space. Additionally, a child learns how to stay warm and dry and use the forest the same way an animal does – using different parts of the forest to feel more dry, more hidden, more cool or more shaded. Beyond the simple goal of teaching children that it’s okay to be outside in any kind of weather, we all attempt to connect children to the surroundings, putting them in situations where they might see, hear, taste, smell and touch the world in a new way. We strive to help them find the awe of nature, on the macro and micro scales. Our goals are always to teach, but to find ways to let nature teach about itself based on the child’s interests. I like to think of myself as someone who makes introductions between children and nature and then sticks around to see how the friendship changes over time.

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

As far as the Nuts About Nature program is concerned, I wish that it was accessible to more children. Because it is a fee-based program, not everyone has the financial ability to sign up. We do have some scholarship money to help bring in children who can’t afford the full fee, but our scholarship resources are limited. Ideally, I would like to have grant money and a teacher training program so that every child in preschool could have a similar experience. Our other programs – elementary field trips and Ladybug Walks – are offered at a minimal rate that makes them more accessible for schools. I wish that in Portland there was a greater emphasis on the importance of letting children connect to nature year round. Many children live near great parks, but hardly have a chance to explore them in their own way and in their own time.

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

Absolutely! Get outside in all types of weather! Choose windy days and rainy days and cold days as well as warm, sunny days. Visit spaces near home – within walking or biking distance. Become familiar with those spaces by visiting them at different times of the year and different times of the day. Bring along tools – a spoon, a measuring cup, an old unused muffin tray, a shovel, a magnifying glass. Leave enough time for unstructured meandering. Let them play and experiment and manipulate the environment. Encourage them to imagine and pretend. Most of all… get in there and follow their lead! Children will uncover the wonder of nature on their own if we give them the time, the place, the materials and the ability to keep our mouths closed! When we interject every couple minutes with an explanation or a commonly known fact, we interrupt their child-like experiential process. Give them a little space to wander along the edges. Most of all, take the time to listen. Children are natural players… we can learn a lot from their spontaneity, their imaginations, and their ability to lose track of time.

What is you favorite natural space in our city?

Oh gosh, I spend time in so many natural spaces, it’s really hard to choose. I love many of them for very different reasons. I love the diversity of Hoyt Arboretum, but I love the familiarity of Mt Tabor Park. I love the ponds and sloughs of Whitaker Ponds as much as I love the tall trees and foggy winter trails of Forest Park. A couple parks that I think are hidden gems, though, are the Columbia Children’s Arboretum and Marshall Park. Both are beautiful and accessible but probably not parks people think of exploring. Really, I just love Portland – and I love Portland’s Parks! See you there!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Chrissy! Patrick and I have had the pleasure of attending a few outings with Chrissy, including a Ladybug Nature Walk at our nearby Maricara Natural Area:

Ladybug Nature Walk at Maricara Natural Area

This entry was posted in chrissy larson, education, epna interviews. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to EPNA Interview #1: Chrissy Larson, Portland Parks & Recreation

  1. eriko says:

    Teacher Chrissy-Balsam is the BEST. I can’t tell you how wonderful it has been to have her be around my kiddos. She really balances letting the kids explore and be kids (attraction to giant sticks) and also keeping the class a real learning experience so everyone can enjoy it (rules, boundaries, and being safe). I LOVE the Nuts about Nature program. It is truly a celebration of what is fantastic about Portland, rain or shine. We moved from Portland last month and I can’t tell you how much we miss Portland Parks and Rec. The city and its families are so lucky to have such an amazing resource at its fingertips.

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