Everyone can be a Riveredge Kid: A Nature Center’s approach to Inclusion
As a fan of Riveredge Nature Center, you may have already heard, we are committed to reimagining what it
means to be a nature center in today’s society. And, while we know that “You’re Always a Riveredge Kid” because of the transformative experiences you’ve had with this special place, we recognize that today’s society, and our connection to the natural world, is changing. That is why recently, Riveredge decided to partner with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (funded by the Mitsubishi Electric America Foundation) to employ one young adult with special needs to complete a part-time internship whose sole focus was on assessing our commitment to inclusion and accessibility in our environmental education programs.
A few short weeks after the position description was posted, we knew that we had found our girl, and in turn, we not only reunited another Riveredge Kid, but also discovered that everyone can benefit from strengthened relationship between nature and people.
Jumping Into the Internship Experience
During the heat of July, Rach jumped right into the nature center grind by assisting with and observing summer camp programming. She described her initial experience to be similar to that of a frog jumping into a pond. Only this pond was a metaphor for her positive and willing attitude to try her hand at the many aspects of working in a nature center.
“I was like a frog hopping on a lilypad, you don’t know what it’s going to do, where it’s going to hop. That was me, here, with you guys. I didn’t know what I was doing, but when I got that first step, I was like, I’m jumping right into this pond! That was awesome! I’m so glad I did.”
Over the course of a few short months, Rach observed over forty summer, school, and homeschool education programs through her unique perspective to inform her recommendations for improving inclusion and accessibility. Rach approaches life with the ability to process sensory tasks with a heightened awareness due to what is called sensory processing disorder. She shared with educators that this causes her visceral discomfort when doing things like “touching bugs” or “experiencing squishy things.” Through this internship experience, we learned that Rach is not alone.
A research study by colleagues who are members of the Sensory Processing Disorder Scientific Work Group suggests that 1 in every 6 children experiences sensory symptoms that may be significant enough to affect aspects of everyday life functions. This finding suggests that there may be a growing number of children who show signs of heightened apprehension toward sensory inputs, which in Rach’s case, may present challenges when exposing young children to new nature-based experiences. This has the power to turn seemingly ordinary experiences in a nature center such as catching bugs, collecting river creatures, or interacting with flying insects into large behavioral outbreaks that prompt teachers to either remove their students from the situation, or in some cases, not participate altogether. Despite this sort of “sensory overload”, which can also be seen in children who possess symptoms of ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder, Rach did not let her own fears or abilities hinder her opportunity to engage with children in the natural world. For example, pictured right, Rach overcame a significant sensory fear by touching a leech for the first time while assisting with a river program. Readers should take note, leeches found in Wisconsin do not actually draw blood until approximately five minutes after attaching. So, while you may be thinking that touching a leech is not a good idea, Rach would tell you (now) that it’s really “not that bad.”
Based on her findings throughout the Inclusion Internship, Rach has provided Riveredge with the following “nuggets” with which we have learned make a difference in improving our learning experience:
- Use plastic models to introduce new concepts like an insect, frog, or plant life cycle before interacting with the real thing especially when a student is sensitive to touch.
- Hand out sensory items like a weighted stuffed animal, blanket, or fidget if you notice a child is having a hard time paying attention in the group.
- Create a visual schedule at the start of a program to give students an idea of what to expect in order to reduce apprehension or fears.
We believe that when it comes to operating a nature center, everyone can be a Riveredge Kid. So, employing all abilities through internship experiences such as this better prepare us to meet the needs of a diverse learning atmosphere. Through simple modifications to our hands-on outdoor experiences, we hope to meet people where they are, and invite all abilities to experience nature through their own lens. We couldn’t have put it better than Rach as she explains, “No matter if you like computers, nature, bugs, animals, there is always something to do at a nature center. I think if you find a person that doesn’t like one thing, you can find that person likes another thing. That’s pretty awesome.” We think that’s pretty awesome, too!
Carly Swatek is the Educational Technology & Evaluation Specialist at Riveredge. She oversaw Rach’s internship experience with Emily Lewis, Inquiry-based Curriculum & Instruction Manager. If you have questions about this article, the internship experience, or other volunteer opportunities at Riveredge Nature Center, please contact Carly at email@example.com or 262-375-2715.