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Shane Vondracek

Shane Vondracek

Shane Vondracek has been the Environmental Education Director at the Apple Creek YMCA for the past 13 years. He graduated from the University Wisconsin-Madison with Bachelors of Science Degrees in Wildlife Ecology and Biological Aspects of Conservation. Contact Shane at [email protected]

A soft breeze carries the delicate scent of spring wildflowers to your nose. Your feet move slowly along the dirt path, carrying you deeper into the forest. Squirrels scamper along ahead of you, crunching through the remains of leaves from this past fall. You hear the familiar sounds of chickadees and woodpeckers all around you. The stress of mundane daily routines and the constant bombardment of technology fades away as you soak in the tranquility of the natural world that now surrounds you.

If you are one of the thousands of people in the Fox Valley that make time daily to get outside and enjoy the natural world around you, you already know that we are blessed with the opportunity to explore a wide variety of natural areas, including city, county and state parks, biking trails, nature preserves, and public green spaces. For most of us, this is something we’ve been doing since childhood, and we often assume that others should automatically have a similar desire to experience the same feelings toward the outdoors as we do.

However, in today’s world, children and adults alike are increasingly disconnected from nature. Smartphones and video games have replaced idle play, and we are raising generations of people who may never truly learn to enjoy the outdoors. Well-meaning but misinformed adults are inadvertently teaching children that spending time in nature is unsafe, unclean or even unnecessary. This is why being outdoors and learning about nature is so important, especially at a young age. Children are instinctively interested in nature; their curiosity needs to know no bounds while outdoors, and there is always something new to learn or explore. When nurtured at a young age, this curiosity often carries over into adulthood as a lifelong appreciation of the outdoors. On the other hand, if no one ever takes that child by the hand to introduce them to the outdoors, the opportunity to instill passion for and understanding of the natural world is lost.

Why does this matter?

Studies show that being outdoors improves mental well-being, concentration and creative thinking. People who spend time enjoying nature have higher levels of physical activity, and thus lower instances of health issues such as obesity, high blood pressure and high stress. Other health benefits related to the outdoors include decreased levels of depression and a stronger immune system. People who spend time outdoors feel more energized and refreshed and are in a better mental state to handle life’s daily challenges.

It doesn’t take a scientific study to prove the benefits of spending time outdoors to anyone. All it takes is a short time outside. Take a hike, go for a bike ride, explore a natural area near your home, go camping or birdwatching, and you’ll experience the changes for yourself. Bring a child with you if you can, and answer their questions.

If you’re not comfortable doing this on your own or not sure where to start, you have lots of options. Have your child attend an environmental education class, sign up for summer outdoor exploration camps or bring the whole family and spend some quality time together at one of the many nature-related special events held in the Fox Valley area. Then, surround yourself with nature and let the rest go. You’ll have some fun, improve your mental and physical well-being and help to pass on a lifelong lesson to others about the importance of spending time outdoors.

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