Did you know that kids in the United States and Canada spend more time inside than any previous generation? While the long-term effects of North American children’s “nature-deficit disorder” is still being researched, we know that time outdoors leads to healthier physical and mental development.

The Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods, nestled within 565 acres of magnificent woodlands in Lake County, Illinois, is tackling that challenge head-on by bringing kids back to nature through its Bosque de Salud, or Forest of Health program. The program gives youth hands-on, educational interaction with the natural world to encourage them to understand their relationship with the environment and inspire a lifetime of stewardship. The program is supported by a Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) Community Grant and is part of a commitment towards healthy communities and an investment in our future sustainability leaders.

A “Pollinator Promise” that reads “I will help my grandma plant some flowers and I will leave water for hummingbirds”

Bosque de Salud/Forest of Health kicked off with a workshop from SFI’s award-winning educational initiative, Project Learning Tree (PLT), and featured activities aimed to familiarize and educate youth and families about forests and the importance of pollinators, including:

  • Building eco-friendly cityscapes with upcycled cardboard and craft supplies, featuring community gardens and green roofs
  • Dissecting wildflowers to understand their complex communication and reproductive systems
  • Making a “Pollinator Promise” that reflects simple steps, like planting native flowers, to help their local pollinators

Often referred to as “generation indoors,” the inactivity of today’s youth has long-term health repercussions and startling associated statistics: the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the ‘70s. Mental health is also affected, and quality of life is reduced. But studies show that spending just five minutes around trees has positive impacts on our immune systems, blood pressure, mood, and focus—even in children with ADHD. Brushwood Center believes these health benefits are for all to enjoy and aims to educate and empower by building a community-wide-awareness around the importance of natural resources and being outdoors.

Participants in Brushwood Center’s PLT Certification Workshop

The PLT workshop successfully certified twenty-two staff and volunteers from participating partner organizations and provided tools to incorporate environmental education into any subject and grade level, in both formal and informal class settings. More than 400 students from the Highwood, North Chicago, Round Lake, and Waukegan communities were reached through these efforts; communities that, on average, are nearly-half Hispanic and Latinx. With lower median incomes and higher rates of obesity and diabetes, many of the children growing up in these communities face increased health risks compounded by the global trend of being raised without regular access to the natural world.

“The community that I live in experiences lots of stress; because it’s a low-income community, parents are always working, and they don’t have enough time with their children. Personally, my brother and I barely see my dad because he leaves for work around five in the morning and isn’t back until eleven at night,” says Brushwood’s new Community Engagement Fellow Nanci Sarmiento.

For Sarmiento, the Center’s work represents an investment beyond education: the Forests of Health/Bosque de Salud program is a convener for her community, a time set aside for mindfulness outdoors that results in better health for her family, community, and the environment. Her 11-year-old brother participated in a field trip to the Center, and her mom attended Brushwood’s family day. Both have been inspired in the months since to make lasting changes to reduce their carbon footprints.

“My family, we’re a Hispanic household, and my mom didn’t grow up in a community that emphasized the importance of taking care of nature. When she visited Brushwood, her thoughts started changing a lot. We have recycling bins in the house now, and whenever we go to stores, she brings her reusable bags. She understands that everything we do impacts nature, and if we all make small changes, it can create big changes for our environment,” says Sarmiento.

Brushwood’s community-focused, inclusive approach to environmental education also reinforces the idea that nature is for all to enjoy. That’s crucial in communities where Spanish-speaking parents may hesitate to attend events where they might need to rely on a friend or family member to translate. By ensuring that their events have a bilingual guide or translator available, Brushwood ensures that attendees feel welcome knowing that they won’t struggle to communicate and are able to ask questions. For stressed parents in these areas, Brushwood’s family days are a luxury, a place where the daily stress dissolves, and friends and neighbors can enjoy the wonders and many health benefits of our natural world. And by focusing on an area’s specific needs, through fun field trips and family days, the Center is transforming community-wide perceptions of the value of nature, one person at a time.

“I live in a small community where everybody knows everybody. It’s been so nice seeing everyone outside at Brushwood, seeing parents able to spend the day with their kids and old friends. Just enjoying that very moment in time, they’ll say to me, ‘I have a lot of things to worry about, but here, I don’t even remember what those things are,’” explains Sarmiento.

The Forest of Health/Bosque de Salud program is supported by the SFI Community Grant Program, which aims to promote collaboration with the SFI Network and support local communities’ understanding of the value and benefits from sustainably managed forests.

To learn more about the Brushwood Center’s grant, visit forests.org/grant-brushwood/.

Thank you to the many partners who collaborated with this project, including:

Chicago Community Trust
Cool Learning Experience
Foss Park District
Gorter Family Foundation
Lake County Forest Preserves
Lake County Health Department
Lumpkin Family Foundation
Mindful Waste
Morrison Family Charitable Foundation
North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE)
Nuestro Center
Roberti Community House
Sierra Club
Smart Farm Barrington
US Forest Service International Program


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