NatureHoods Program Connects Kids to “Nearby Nature” in their Schoolyard

The term “NatureHood” was new for me when I started work at the Children’s Forest of Central Oregon. A “NatureHood” is a natural space that schools and the community use to learn about and explore nature close to home. While far off field trips are wonderful outdoor learning opportunities, it’s not always feasible for classrooms to partake in these longer experiences, and if they do, it’s usually only once or twice a year.  And so, the Children’s Forest of Central Oregon developed the NatureHoods Program as a way for classrooms to get outside while learning in their own schoolyard or nearby park.

The NatureHoods Program offers free science curriculum for K-2 students across Central Oregon, consisting of four, one-hour lessons. The lessons align with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and enrich elementary science education. Each grade level has its own age-appropriate nature theme with four, unique lessons.

The lessons introduce kids to important concepts of nature, including adaptations, basic needs of survival, pollination, seed dispersal and more. Each lesson is also paired with a fun activity or game to get kids moving. Observation skills and sensory awareness are introduced and continue as a theme throughout all lessons.

During the spring session of 2019, I visited 30 classes at 12 schools (totaling about 600 students) throughout Central Oregon, including Bend, Redmond, Sunriver, Prineville, Culver, Metolius, and Madras. Each class was unique and different, but EVERY class was excited to go outside.

Kids may be surprised at how much life they can discover in their own schoolyard if they look close enough. During a lesson at Tom McCall Elementary in Redmond, a class of 1st graders became explorers in their own schoolyard. Equiped with a clipboard, wildlife tracking sheet, and a pencil, they were given the mission to observe and record any signs of life. The kids were amazed at what they found: a frog in a water drain, bird nests, intricate spider webs home to hairy spiders, ant colonies, and beautiful flowers. At Bear Creek Elementary in Bend, kindergarten students discovered deer tracks imprinted in the mud, gray squirrels jumping between trees, and a western fence lizard scuttling among rocks.

As the NatureHoods Coordinator, my goal is to excite kids about nature. A 2nd grader from Buff Elementary in Madras said to me, “Thank you for teaching me about nature. You have made me love it more. I play outside more than I ever have.”

A 1st grader from Tom McCall Elementary told me that he “loves all animals…especially birds…especially Osprey,” and he wants to help them in any way he can. He also loves video games. Together, we decided he was a “Nature Superhero” with his own video game that saves animals. In this game, when you save an animal on a quest, you get to become the animal. I have never seen eyes get so big with excitement. Maybe he will create it someday.

Through the NatureHoods Program, kids build an understanding of the natural world and engage in discussions about this new information. Children in grades K-2 are inquisitive, eager, full of stories to share, and have an infectious imagination. From the eyes of a child, every dog print is the track of a wolf, every ant is a deadly fire ant, and every butterfly is a famous Monarch. Let’s continue to foster this enthusiasm and curiosity.

By connecting kids to nature, I hope to inspire them to care for and appreciate our planet well beyond their school-age years.

For more information about NatureHoods, check out the program on our website. Teachers interested in signing up for NatureHoods during the 2019-20 school year? Contact Cara Gates at

Written by: Cara Gates, NatureHoods Coordinator/AmeriCorps Member (Notre Dame Mission Volunteers of Bend)

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