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 firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a suggestion for someone to be interviewed for this series.
Today I talk to Elvira Stenson, an environmental educator with Portland Parks & Recreation.
Hi Elvira, 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 have been working in the outdoor education field since I was in college – over 15 years now! I have a B.S. in Natural Resource Recreation from Virginia Tech and a M.A. in Outdoor Recreation / Environmental Education from the University of Minnesota. I have worked summers in Virginia and Colorado with outdoor camps and Outward Bound. I worked in Natural History museums in Virginia and Minnesota. I kept heading westward and have been teaching kids (and adults!) about nature in Oregon for the past 8 years. In 2007 I began working for Portland Parks and Recreation’s Environmental Education. I am “Teacher Wren” at our Nuts About Nature programs. I lead trips for adults to some of our region’s gems through the Nature of the Northwest series. I am involved with our school field trips and Summer Nature Day Camp – both behind the scenes and teaching. I also lead some of the Teen Environmental Adventures programs like backpacking, spring break adventures and other day trips like rafting and hiking. We have a lot going on at PP&R!
Describe for us how you connect Portland kids to nature. Tell us about your programs.
Whether the participant is a preschooler, teenager, or adult, I connect people to nature by trying to expand awareness and pique curiosity. At PP&R, we teach a wide range of subjects, but the main goal is to get folks wanting to know more. If they are asking questions, that is a good indicator that they are curious! I am always thinking to myself, “There is always more to learn” – it really is never-ending! When a child shows us something and asks what it is, we ask questions like, “What do you think?” We may guide them along the way by asking more specific questions, but nature is always more meaningful and memorable when we allow someone to come to their own conclusions.
Most of us who are passionate about nature as adults grew up exploring, hiking, playing and wandering in wild areas. Parents left us alone, and we returned home at dark. We probably also wandered to school on our own or with peers. Portland Parks’ Summer Nature Day Camp is a child-directed way to re-create the scenario many of us had growing up while at the same time adding the supervision needed to make it safe. We give campers the freedom to get dirty, climb trees (we do have a few rules for safety) and explore.
Here’s an example… One of my favorite memories of camp was when we went off exploring a creek one day. It was totally spontaneous and totally driven by the campers. For the first time that week (and maybe in their 7 or 8 year old lives) they were bush whacking. We would stop to catch our breath and one of them would pipe up after a moment, “Come on! Let’s keep going!” They had caught that sense of exploring — always wanting to know what lies around the next bend. We discovered tracks and scat and wondered what animal had been there. Some got scraped by thorns, some slipped and got muddy. They wondered if we were lost. They wondered if they would see their parents again. We were within a half mile of the trail but I wasn’t about to tell them that! I knew it was a grand adventure that they wouldn’t forget for some time.
Do you have any moments in nature from your childhood that left an impression on you?
During my college years I began wondering why I was such a nature nut. We never camped as a family or even went hiking. I didn’t get it. Then after being a part of this “industry” for several years, which meant being a part of numerous staff trainings and reading articles I realized why. I was one of those kids who had woods beyond the backyard. My friends, my brother and I would mess around back there. We used our imaginations. We told stories. It must be why I care about the health of this planet. When I was in 8th grade I got the 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Save The Earth book. And by golly, I was going to do them!
When I was babysitting once (I have always loved kiddos!) the boy had gone to sleep and I picked up a small pamphlet from the coffee table. I might have even borrowed it to show my parents (I was in high school). I had been to a few residential summer camps but this, this was different! This brochure was offering backpacking for youth my age. I was 16 and got to go on a 12 day backpacking trip. A whole new world opened up for me!
Do you have children yourself? If so, tell me about their relationship to nature.
No, I do not have any children of my own. Because I get to work with kids out in nature I feel very blessed. I love watching them get curious. I’m usually saying things like “Whoa! Look at this!” after finding anything from a hole in a leaf to a bark beetle track on a log. My enthusiasm is real. It’s part of who I am – not just a great teaching technique! When the tables turn and suddenly kids (or adults!) begin to become aware and they’re pointing things out to me, well that’s the best!
Describe for us something about Portland’s focus on nature that you think is valuable for the city’s youth.
Portland values biking, walking, parks, our growth boundary and our urban forest. All make for healthy, happy citizens! We have children growing up on organic local food and live in a city where recycling and composting are commonplace. Portland has nature-based education options for people of every age. These opportunities, paired with the enterprising attitude of many adults makes Portland a great place to live.
Is there anything missing that you would like to see happen in Portland?
Well, Portland has a lot to offer, so I don’t really see much missing. I would like to see the Portland Parks and Recreation’s fantastic programs reaching a wider audience! I do believe that Healthy Parks = Healthy Portland.
Secondly, I have never been directly involved with Outdoor School but I have seen faces of students light up when I ask if they enjoyed Outdoor School. I would love to see this program continue.
Lastly, as a bike commuter, I would love to see communities, schools, parents and kids embrace biking and walking to and from school. Yes, even in the rain – boots and jackets for all!
Do you have any advice for parents looking to connect their kids to nature?
Yes! Many parents seem unsure of themselves, like they feel they need to know a lot. Here’s what I say: “You can do this!” A parent does not need to know all the names of plants and all the other stuff one might see out there. Just get curious and learn along with your child. Parents and children can sketch and jot down thoughts and questions – a nature journal is a great tool. If you need more information, look at field guides.
Also, I see parent chaperones on field trips react to something “icky” by physically cringing or saying, “Ew!” Children can pick up on our reactions and get turned off. Our own biases are hard to shake, but identifying them, putting on a “game face”, and practicing how to “be brave” can turn us all into great nature role models. Luckily, there is not much in our region that is truly dangerous!
Lastly, slow down. Take time for nature in all seasons. Go to a natural area without an agenda, and let the kids decide what to do. Bring a digging spoon. Sit there and see what happens, or just follow your child if they like to move. If the child is older, expand the distance within which he or she can explore by setting some boundaries and deciding to meet back up at a certain time. Use trails and creeks that are natural landmarks.
What is your favorite natural space in our city?
There are so many! Powell Butte Natural Area, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, Whitaker Ponds Natural Area…we’ve got great options in Portland! This summer I had the opportunity to hike the entire Wildwood Trail with some of our older campers. Seeing that much of Forest Park and sitting there (we did sit spots) and listening to birds and not hearing much else just made it seem like we were far far away from the city. And in a very real sense we were that far away! It was awesome! So, I know lots of folks enjoy Forest Park, but add me to the list!
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Elvira! It was a pleasure meeting you at the Festival of the Birds earlier this year, and I hope that my children can benefit from your passion for nature in the future. Elvira blogs about life and nature at where ever you go.