Growing Up in Nature

Photo of a white woman looking at the camera. She has long brown hair framing her face and is wearing a green shirt. A taxidermy skunk is being held in front of her face.
Me, as a volunteer at a station about skunks

by CB, a staff member

Long before I came to work at Cincinnati Nature Center, I grew up here.

As a kid, a neighbor would frequently bring me and my best friend (her daughter) to the Nature Center. We’d tell stories of fairies and trolls in the woods, look for butterflies, and jump tree roots, pretending they were snakes. Rowe Woods was a magical place for imaginative kid me.

As a high schooler, it became a place I could hang with my friends, walking the trails where adults couldn’t overhear our gossip and our secret stories. It’s where I could fall in love for the first time. It’s where I learned I could find a bit of peace from the pressures of good grades and expectations.

As an adult, I drifted in and out of the Nature Center, depending on where I lived and what I was doing. But eventually, always, it called me back. The trails were as much a part of me as they were of the woods and fields.

A young child, with their back to the camera, tosses fallen leaves in the air, over their head. They're wearing a red and white sweatshirt coat and have on bright blue pants. Their hair is blonde and medium length. Surrounding them are the trunks of bare trees and fallen leaves on the ground.
A young child tosses autumn leaves into the air

Eventually, I moved back to Milford, and decided to reconnect to the Nature Center as a volunteer. After my background check and training, I began working with 5- and 6-year-olds who were part of the Children’s Saturday programs---a drop-off half day program of exploring and hiking.

And I saw it again – that spark that lit me up as a kid in nature was here in the children in these programs. They were active and excited, yes. But they also marveled at green beetles and many-legged millipedes. They cheered each other when one caught a tadpole and gasped in wonder when another uncovered a tiny juvenile salamander.

They got muddy, wet, and covered in dirt. They lifted sap buckets and made amazing figures out of creek clay.

And every single Saturday was an adventure for them. There was always a new discovery, a new game, a new area. Curiosity bloomed and their eyes shone. Each weekend, I saw them connect to nature and build memories I knew they’d carry with them for a lifetime.

A toddler holds a stick vertically and is using it to poke a log. They are wearing a pink and purple plaid coat.
Bean as a one-year-old, exploring the magic of a stick.

When I became a parent, I knew I wanted to share that magic with my child. I wanted them to grow up with a deep connection to the natural world, to discover for themselves how nature can nourish and lift us up whatever age we are.

My spouse and I started that connection for our child, Bean, as soon as we could. Hikes with them strapped to one of us or secure in a stroller happened nearly every weekend. Then came the toddling hikes along easy trails, taking our time as our 2-year-old stopped to inspect what felt like every piece of gravel, every fallen stick.

And while that was a tremendous test of patience for me, giving Bean that time to explore even the most mundane things outside helped them build their own connection to nature and the world around them.

A young child plays in the snow in a fort made from logs and branches. They are wearing a bright, multicolor scarf, a grey sock hat with a pink brim, and a dark pink coat, They are surrounded by snow.
Bean plays in a snowy fort in the PlayScape

And then, there were the countless afternoons in the PlayScape, letting Bean take the lead in whatever they wanted to do. Some days were spent splashing in the stream. Others were whiled away running through the Willow Tunnel or climbing logs and building forts. Rare snowy days were often spent on a slick piece of plastic, sliding down Hopple Hill, to land in a giggling pile at the bottom.

The PlayScape gave us a place where Bean could truly, completely be a child in the wilderness. They could gather stones, pluck blooms, roll in the grass … whatever they felt like doing. Paint with mud? You got it. Exploring off-trail? You bet! All the things we couldn’t let them do when hiking on the trails outside of the PlayScape, they could do inside those borders. It was an unbridled chance for them to connect to nature in their own way.

A preschool-aged child stands on the low branch of a small tree, holding onto the trunk with both hands. They're wearing al light grey sweatshirt, navy pants, and pink and white shoes. In the background is an autumn forest with fallen leaves all over the ground.
Bean in Nature Preschool.

When it came time for preschool, there wasn’t a doubt in my or my husband’s mind that we’d send Bean to the Nature School. We wanted them to have a preschool experience outdoors, exploring the natural world.

Picking them up after their first day, Bean was mud-smeared, tired, and the happiest kid I’d ever seen. They had found a red eft—a tiny juvenile salamander—on their first exploration! In their 3-year-old babble, they talked and talked about being outside, about finding things, about playing in the mud.

And it only got better from there. Bean made friends they still have to this day. On days too cold or rainy to be outside, they stayed in and discovered books. Bean would come home and sing us songs they learned or teach us about butterflies or plants they found.

The Nature School became a place of exploration and safety for them. And now, five years later? They still bring up their time in preschool and how much they loved and miss it.

With elementary school and extracurricular activities, our time at the Nature Center waned a little.

A young child in a bright light green t-shirt and dark shorts faces the camera smiling. They are crouching in a creek, t-shirt soaked, hands in the creek.
Bean in the creek during their first creek camp.

But then there was summer camp.

CincyNature Camp was love at first sight for Bean. They had wanted to be signed up for two camps—one all about the creek and one about being a nature detective. Both camps left them breathless with excitement. Bean talked endlessly about going to the creek, about how they slid into the water and how cool it felt on that hot day. They talked about finding lizards and playing imagination games where they were hawks, hunting for prey. 

Last year, Bean chose the creek camp again and then chose a camp whose last day was flipped – it became an evening camp with cookouts, s’mores, and night hikes. They actually cried at the end of that camp—happy because the week was so fun, but sad because they would miss all of their friends and counselors.

A young white child in a pink shirt holds their hand out to toward the camera. On their finger is a black butterfly with bright blue on its hind wings. The child has red hair pulled back into two ponytails and is holding a water bottle, lunch bag, and a stuffed animal in their other arm. Behind them is a paved path along a grassy area with a few trees.
Bean poses with a red-spotted purple butterfly they found after camp

This year, Bean is in a camp called Enchanted Forest, imagining how faeries and other mythical creatures would make homes and survive in the habitats we have here. The second-to-last day of camp, they received a personal note from the faeries they created—and that note now holds a place of honor in their special treasure box in their room. The last day of camp, their group hunted for trolls—and had such a good time doing so, that Bean wanted to come back over the weekend to see they could find more evidence of trolls in the forest.

Bean loves coming to camp every year. At each pick-up, they are absolutely glowing and the good kind of exhausted. The kind of exhausted that happens when you’re outside with good friends, doing and learning what you love. Bean is happy because the camp staff see them and accept them, because they let their imaginations run wild, because they do it all outside, within the cool shade of the forest and along the flowering fields.

A young child runs at the camera, smiling. They have short blonde hair and are wearing a rainbow dress. They're on a gravel trail, with a green summer forest behind them.
Bean on the trail at around 5-years-old

But mostly, what I see as a parent is that my kid is joyful. Their experiences here, from being strapped on my chest while hiking to preschool discoveries to creating a world where faeries live, have brought and taught them joy.

They find happiness in curiosity, excitement in discovery. They delight in play and laugh while learning. Bean is building their connection to nature right now. They’re discovering their own relationship to the natural world, their interest in science, and their passion for being outside.

As a parent, it’s amazing to see this happening in real time.

Even more meaningful, Bean is not making these connections or having these experiences in a vacuum. Their time in nature has been and continues to be influenced by the supportive and nurturing relationships they’ve developed with the staff here through programs, Preschool, and camp. Each person here has helped Bean understand the world a little better—they’ve helped Bean find and deepen their joy in nature.

A photo of a middle-aged white woman and a young white child. The woman is smiling at the camera. She wears black and red glasses and has long brown hair. The young kid is also smiling at the camera and wearing a pink shirt. Their hair is pulled back from their face. There are green leaves in the background.
CB and Bean on trail

From the minute I discovered I was going to be a mom until this very moment typing these words, one of my strongest wishes for my kid is that they find their happiness.

Cincinnati Nature Center is helping them do that (and has been for going on nine years now). I’m forever grateful to this organization for that.