A couple of weeks ago, Brennan Basler saw a group of kids brighten up at Amigos Wash, a usually dry arroyo in the desert outside of Mesa. They were huddled over a hole in the wash's dirt bank, brainstorming what kind of reptile might live in a hole like that, when a boy spied a real live desert tortoise plodding through the sandy wash bottom toward them.
"They were electrified," says Basler, interpretive ranger at Usery Mountain Regional Park. "There's something about seeing an animal in the wild that you can't teach. You can't sit someone in a classroom and tell them a deer is a beautiful thing and show them pictures, Power Points and DVDs to make them feel the same way. It's like the difference between teaching someone about the concept of love and actually falling in love."
Personal connection, he says, is the key to building a relationship with nature.Though many suburban families may long for such a connection, it can be hard to find in a scorching landscape of tile roofs and drive-through coffee shops. Arizona may be known for its natural wonders, but getting outdoors in the East Valley can be a challenge: It's so hot for so long, and the prickly plants and rocky surfaces aren't nearly as inviting as the grassy fields, shady forests and trickling streams a lot of Arizona transplants grew up with. It's harsh, it's hot, and in a neighborhood where you probably don't know the neighbors you've shared a block wall with for six years, it's hard to let kids loose to discover nature on their own.
But there are ways to connect with the outdoors, even in the waning weeks of a triple-digit summer. And there are plenty of reasons to, say Basler and Sandra Muñoz-Weingarten, naturalist and director of Chandler's Environmental Education Center.
They've both spent years working to bridge the gap between people and nature, Basler at the Maricopa County Parks and Phoenix Zoo, Muñoz-Weingarten at Grand Canyon National Park and South Mountain Preserve. Not only do they believe time outdoors makes for healthier, happier kids; it makes for a greener planet in the long run.
"When people don't have that connection with nature, they don't know how important it is. If nature isn't a consideration for them, then why not bulldoze over more desert to put in another shopping center or strip mall?" says Muñoz-Weingarten.
Here, the outdoor educators offer ideas for connecting with nature, despite the heat. An expanded list is available by clicking here.
Get up early, just once. Basler says early morning - as soon as it's light enough to see - is prime animal-spotting time. "As soon as kids see a jackrabbit or a coyote or a javelina, it's like a natural alarm clock," he says.
Build or buy a birdhouse or bat house and spend time watching and recording the creatures that flock to your yard, advises Muñoz-Weingarten.
Let kids set up a tent in the backyard and sleep there overnight, using light sheets in lieu of heavy sleeping bags. Instead of hot chocolate, serve chocolate milkshakes, says Muñoz-Weingarten.
Make use of technology. "Since I've gotten a digital camera, it's opened a whole new dimension to me, and I'm already an outdoors person," says Basler. "The excitement of getting to capture things I see out in nature is very motivating." Give inexpensive cameras to each child to take into the field, or sign up for an outdoor photography workshop at a local park or environmental education center. Stash binoculars and magnifying glasses in your backpack, too.
Go hunting for holes. "There's a lot of good literature lately about natural swimming holes in Arizona," says Basler. "Granted, they're not right here in the Valley, but they're not all that far - Payson, Cottonwood, Sedona all have some."
Team up with friends or relatives and request a group hike or program from a local mountain park; most will do it free if you call and make arrangements.
Use hot months to plan your fall, spring and winter excursions. Children can help research and plan trips, decorate notebooks to use as nature journals or trip logs, and ready supplies for fishing, hiking and camping trips.