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Board column: Tacoma Nature Walks program

Tacoma parks are some of my favorite places to spend my free time and my work time. Fortunately, Metro Parks Tacoma offers a great system of parks across the city. From small neighborhood parks to large attractions like Point Defiance Park, there is a place for people in all communities to enjoy the outdoors. I believe this park system is one of the greatest assets Tacoma holds.

I myself am a Tacoma resident and love to spend time at my neighborhood park with my family. My family visits our neighborhood park almost daily, using the playground, checking out the views of Mt. Rainier, and running through the grass. When we need an adventure a little farther away we go for hikes through some of the larger natural areas looking for flowers, invertebrates, birds, and rocks to throw. The world is so interesting through the lens of a two year old – so many new things to see and touch. Watching other families delight in the natural world is a wonderful benefit of my job. I work at the Tacoma Nature Center (part of the park district) as the off-site environmental educator. This means I get to visit schools, and teach in the parks around the city. Environmental education in all forms strives to connect people to the environment. When I began working at the nature center, the goal was to take environmental education to locations beyond the nature center and make it more accessible to all residents.

Family Nature Walks began in 2010 at parks with large natural areas to expand the places where nature education is offered. These walks introduce participants to new parks throughout the city while facilitating a connection between them and their parks. There are several desired outcomes from these walks. 1) Each participant has fun outside. I want these to be a fun memorable experience for all participants that encourages them to use the parks more, especially the natural spaces. 2) Participants learn something new about nature. As participants learn more about the parks and wildlife, they begin to have a stronger connection to the park and care about the park and it’s wild residents. 3) Increase participant’s appreciation of the park. Enjoyment and understanding lead to appreciation. Once people appreciate the parks, they become advocates and stewards of the parks and the park district in the future.

What is it like to be on one of these walks? Join us for a moment… I hold up the secret signal, hands cupped behind the ears like a fox. Participants do the same and we listen to the kikikikiki of a Northern flicker in the distance. Next we touch the leaves of the beaked hazelnut tree (also known as nature’s toilet paper) which is so fun because they are fuzzy and soft. We use all of our senses to explore the parks. It is always fun to see participant’s faces light up as we make discovery after discovery.

Family Nature Walks are a free-flowing program where we live in the moment. There are always a few props or activities stored in the backpack, but Mother Nature never fails to provide enough entertainment. Walks explore seven different parks four times a year (once each season). Every time we take a walk, the park shows us a different face, adding to the respect and appreciation we feel for nature.

As a city resident and park employee, I value the parks and the opportunities they give residents to get outside, play and connect with the natural world. The more opportunities people have to get out and enjoy their parks and trails whether through independent or guided experiences, the more they will advocate for them in the future. I believe this is a wonderful cycle.

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