“Look what we found, M.J.! What kind of animal is it?”

Josie and Vera Johnson, vibrant seven year-old twins, stumbled upon tracks left in the snow while playing at Heritage Park just last week.

“Those are deer tracks,” explained M.J. Smith, Westerville Parks and Recreation staff naturalist, who specializes in outdoor and wildlife programming. 

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Both Josie and Vera are veteran participants in Parks and Recreation’s Outdoor Explorers class that M.J. teaches every quarter. The duo gets a kick out of testing M.J.’s knowledge.

“It is so cool when we see something. We just ask M.J. and she tells us what it is,” said Josie Johnson. 

Outdoor Explorers is one of three nature courses in a specific “Outdoor” series aimed at children of different ages. Outdoor Discoverers and Outdoor Adventurers, along with Outdoor Explorers, expose kids to quality time in the parks while learning about various animals and plants that inhabit the region.

A short walk down the path reveals the sound of a bird. M.J. and the girls stop to find a woodpecker high in the trees.

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“There are opportunities all around us in nature to learn,” said Smith. “Part of the program is structured, but it is also vital that kids have the opportunity to ask questions, search, and play freely. If we didn’t take the time to pause and use the binoculars to spot the Red Bellied Woodpecker, we may have never seen the beautiful color of that particular bird.” 

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These tidbits of information from the classes are sticking with the students. 

“When children can touch, hear and see the things we are talking about, it really helps them retain information,” said Smith. “There are four classes within each course and by the last day, the kids are pointing out types of flowers or in this instance, Josie was able to identify a poison ivy vine right away and Vera found flower buds from a red maple tree.”

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This dedicated time to experience the natural world provides more benefits than just education. Studies show spending time outdoors can improve social skills, academic performance, stress levels and creativity to name a few.

“We all have access to this wonderful tool that can help not only improve our well-being, but improve the quality of life for our youth. I see it in the kids on a weekly basis, their energy levels and excitement while soaking in green space in undeniable,” said Smith.

Josie and Vera’s Mom, Vanessa, says all these combined benefits are why she continues to enroll her girls in the course.

“Every time Josie and Vera take this class, they get something new out of it,” said Johnson. They are becoming more attuned to nature, making new friends and developing a great relationship with an adult mentor.”

As Josie and Vera stomp in rain puddles giggling, it is apparent that the girls want to engage in this type of activity too. 

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“We love the class! It is fun!” tells Vera.

According to the tree buds M.J. discovered with the Josie and Vera, spring is on its way and so is the next session of outdoors classes in May. For class details and registration information on Outdoor Discoverers, Explorers and Adventurers, visit the Westerville website at this link.

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