by Tiffany Beachy, MS
When I answer that question for myself, I think about rustic forts and tiny communities built in tree roots for my imaginary friends; smelly concoctions of berries and honeysuckle flowers mixed with twigs, roots and water; long romps in the woods and treasure hunting on the beach.
None of these memories were purchased with money. None of them were the coveted toy-of-the-year found in the department store catalog. Yet, all of them were given to me by my parents, who always encouraged me to play outside.
The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is a non-profit residential environmental education center located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our mission is connecting people and nature.
We wholeheartedly believe in our mission because we have seen firsthand the lasting impact made by a deep connection with the natural world. From urban schoolchildren who rarely step off of pavement to suburban home schooling families seeking hands-on science learning opportunities, we see the gift of nature discovery unveil itself over and over in the lives of our participants.
This fall brought us some unexpected challenges, with the government shutdown forcing us to turn away excited groups of students and their families.
We cancelled programs and trips and struggled to make new plans, unsure of when we would be able to invite visitors again. After a few days, we realized that there was at least one program we could still host by holding it outside of the National Park—our monarch butterfly tagging events!
We are deeply grateful to the managers of Tennessee’s newest State Park, Seven Islands State Birding Park in Knox County and Kyker Bottoms Wildlife Management Area in Blount County for allowing us to meet on their property to catch and tag these migratory butterflies.
“After a few days, we realized that there was at least one program we could still host by holding it outside of the National Park—our monarch butterfly tagging events!”
Undaunted, most of the families who had signed up to catch butterflies in Cades Cove within the National Park switched their plans and met us at these alternate locations, excited to explore someplace new.
That was our silver lining: Many of the butterfly wranglers had never visited either Seven Islands or Kyker Bottoms, so they came away with a new family adventure destination close to home. What a joy to see parents and kids march off across sunny meadows together, armed with nets and big grins!
Are you trying to think of the perfect gift that will endure in your child’s memory, that he/she will thank you for even as an adult? Give the gift of nature play!!
Take the time to explore and discover with them, to find mysteries and make up new worlds. You will be giving them an inexhaustible game: an activity that never gets old, used up or worn out. The batteries don’t have to be replaced, you don’t have to plug it in, there’s no instruction manual. Just go out there and play.
Retreat to the mountains with your family! Check out family adventures in the Smokies at this link: http://www.gsmit.org/Family.html.
Tiffany Beachy earned her BS in Wildlife Science from Virginia Tech in 2003 and her MS in Wildlife Science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2008, where she studied Cerulean Warblers. She has participated in avian research in Tennessee, Canada, Mexico, the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, Venezuela, and Missouri.