This summer, the Warner Parks Urban Nature Program (UNP) served 327 youth and 22 Metro Nashville Community Centers through PEN Pals summer camps, Community Center Field Days, and After-school Nature Detectives Programs. With 49 volunteers, 250+ volunteer hours, and 1 Program Director, we had an unbelievable summer connecting Nashville’s urban youth to nature.
PEN Pals Summer Camps
During PEN Pals Camp, youth explored diverse habitats that make up the Warner Parks – the meadow, pond, garden, forest, and river. They spent crucial time doing unstructured outdoor play at WPNC’s new Nature Play Area and learned to kayak and sustainably collect natural objects for a nature craft. The highlights included tasting arugula flowers and miniature tomatoes in the garden, catching insects in the meadow, learning to kayak, and finding and holding crawdads in the creek!
Here are some of our favorite camper quotes from the summer:
- “I’m not afraid of bugs anymore! I actually like nature now.”
- “I want to come back to PEN Pals every year!”
- “I want to be an explorer now! I want to learn about bugs and insects.”
One participant from Smith Springs Community Center expressed that the garden program was their “favorite day ever.” Another child from Hartman Park Community Center commented that she “LOVED everything” about the gardening program – “the soil, the bugs, the plants, the paint! All of it!” It was moving to hear such enthusiasm for nature, especially because that same child was quite fearful when she first encountered an insect at the beginning of the program. In fact, she ultimately included bugs as a positive element of her experience when she reflected at the end of the day, suggesting that our program had stirred a powerful shift in her feelings toward the natural world. How amazing is that?
A highlight of the summer was a day-long field with over 50 youth from Bellevue Community Center exploring the Warner Parks. Youth ages 12-14 spent the day on a caving adventure followed by an exploration of the Little Harpeth River, where they learned about the relationship between water quality and macroinvertebrate life in the aquatic ecosystem. Youth in the 6-8 and 9-11 age groups explored the meadow, pond, and garden at WPNC, had unstructured play time in WPNC’s Nature Play area, hiked to the Lodge; roasted s’mores, built forts out of natural materials, created nature crafts, and played nature-themed games. It was truly one of the best days we’ve had in the park all year!
All Aboard the Urban Nature Bus
The new Urban Nature Van (donated by our Park Partners at Nissan) allowed us to expand Urban Nature programming to Beaman Park, a beautiful natural oasis just 20 minutes north of Warner Parks. 20 youth from two community centers had the opportunity to explore the Beaman Park Nature Center, take a hike through the forest, sing camp songs, do crafts, eat lunch, and explore Henry Creek!
The new van also allowed the Urban Naturalist to travel across Davidson County to several community centers for PEN Pals orientations, where we spent time helping youth get comfortable and excited about spending a whole day in the outdoors – a new experience for many of them.
During the orientation visits, our urban naturalist spoke with the campers about what to expect at camp, encouraged enthusiasm and curiosity for nature, and most importantly, discussed the campers’ fears in the outdoors. Snakes, spiders, bears, and bugs were the most common fears expressed, but some children expressed worry about tigers, alligators, and sharks. We spent time talking through their fears, learning about what creatures we could find, and what we won’t find in the park, and discussing how to maintain safety and comfort if we encounter something that scares us. Making sure that the youth feel safe and comfortable in the outdoors is one of the most crucial and impactful elements of the PEN Pals program.
Overall, the impact of this summer’s Urban Nature programming felt tangible when youth were having new experiences in nature, facing their fears, and engaging their curiosity and hands-on relationships with the world around them. We can’t wait to continue our Urban Nature Programming this fall with PEN Pals campfires, night hikes, and more after-school Nature Detectives Programs!
The Urban Nature Program is a partnership between Metro Parks and Recreation, the Warner Park Nature Center, and Friends of Warner Parks. Consider supporting programming and events through the Urban Nature Program by volunteering, donating, or becoming a Park Partner.