Discover the Benefits of Outdoor Exploration

“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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Education & Exploration

Are you ready for the heat?

There are a ton of great benefits to exercising outdoors this time of year. When you run or bike outside, you typically get a more strenuous workout than you would on a treadmill or stationary bike. Your body has a chance to soak up more Vitamin D from the sun, and people report feeling less stressed and happier when they engage in physical activity in nature.

In typical Ohio fashion, the hottest days of the year still may be headed our way. As you take to a park, your neighborhood or the recreational path system, here are some things to remember from our Fitness & Wellness Program Supervisor, Megan, to have a productive, positive and safe workout.

  • Pick the right time, sunrise or sunset. Your best bet on a hot day is to head out in the early morning or evening when your shadow is twice as long as you are tall. According to the National Weather Service, exposure to direct sunlight can increase how hot it feels by as much as 15 degrees.
  • The more humid it becomes, the less your sweat evaporates from your skin. This means your body’s key cooling mechanism is disabled. Go easy or go inside.
  • Guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine say to stay well hydrated throughout the day by drinking at least eight cups of water, and then make sure to have eight to 12 ounces about 15 minutes prior to your outdoor exercise session. Sip three to eight ounces every 15 or 20 minutes as you exercise, and don’t forget to drink after you’re finished working out.
  • Don’t forget to use sunscreen and when possible take shaded trails or pathway.
  • Wear loose, light-colored clothing to help keep you cool.
  • Eat snacks to maintain energy. Choose a juicy snack like fruit and avoid snacks like crackers that require your body to add water to consume.
  • Carry some form of identification on you. Ideally, you should have your driver’s license and/or a small card that lists your phone number and the number of an emergency contact. Additionally, bringing your cell phone allows you to stay touch with family and friends and, if necessary, connect you with emergency services.
  • Exercising with a partner or group can be a great motivator, but it also reduces your chance of being targeted. If one of you should get injured or sick, the other person is there to get help and reduce your vulnerability. If exercising alone, make sure someone close to you knows when you are exercising, where you are going and when you are expected back.
  • Pay attention to your surroundings. It is best to be very familiar with your exercise route and know of any areas which may be potentially dangerous. It is great to get into the “zone” while exercising, but make sure to stay aware of where you are, who is around you and where you are going.
  • Listen to your body.  Stop immediately and take a break if you’re feeling dizzy, faint or nauseous.

If you are interested in structured exercise, each Saturday morning through November a group of walkers meets to jump-start the weekend with an hour walk and some sight-seeing along the way. For details on this program, click here.

Healthy Active Lifestyle