BOULDER — When 4-year-old Koa Desrosiers saw another child step on a bug, he ran over to it to make sure it was OK.
Koa learned empathy for other living things at Thorne Nature Preschool, an early childhood program in Boulder and Lafayette that fosters development of the whole child and the connection children have with nature.
“They watch seasons happen around the outdoor schoolyard. They see animals come and go and the life-and-death cycle of vegetation from spring to fall,” said Koa’s father Keith Desrosiers, executive director of Thorne Nature Experience. “Once you build a connection to the natural world, you care about it.”
Thorne Nature Experience, one of Colorado’s first environmental nonprofits, was founded in Boulder in 1954 by Oakleigh Thorne II. The nonprofit offers in-school and after-school programs, field trips and summer camps that get youth involved in nature through hands-on, place-based environmental education.
“What’s important about it is that being outside affects children positively in terms of their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing,” Desrosiers said. “There are a thousand things that being outside are positive for children. But, unfortunately, children spend half as much time outside as they did 20 years ago.”
Originally, Thorne, now 93, founded the Thorne Ecological Institute with the idea of protecting and preserving the natural environment. At that time, the institute, which later changed its name to Thorne Nature Experience, was a generalist organization that, over time, became more specialized with a focus on youth education.
“We help kids to build an empathetic connection to the natural world, and that’s a precursor to taking stewardship actions later in life,” Desrosiers said, explaining that stewardship is developed out of environmental education experiences that foster an emotional connection to nature. “We don’t do a ton of teaching about climate change and environmental catastrophes. We try to get kids outside so they can get mud on their faces.”
Thorne Nature Experience offers programming for more than 10,000 youth and adults each year and has provided it for more than 325,000 people since its beginning. To do the work, there is a staff of 25 and a volunteer force of 150.
The programming includes summer day camps in Boulder and Lafayette for youth ages 3-15 with a focus on learning about nature, exploring the outdoors and building wilderness skills.
School programs are available at Boulder and Denver metro-area elementary schools and as a multimedia, bilingual virtual option. The in-school program is a three-class series of lessons that involve interactive explorations, inquiry-based experiments and the use of scientific instruments and specimens to increase science and literary skills. The after-school program spans 12 weeks and includes nature mentorship, unstructured play, student-led inquiry and exploration in and around the school yard and nearby natural areas.
Field trips involve a day-long experience in a local natural area focused on the interconnections among animals, plants, land, water and humans.
“There really is a focus on guiding children into nature play, which is allowing them to follow their own interests,” said Erin Saunders, education programs director for Thorne Nature Experience, explaining that nature serves as the classroom with expected routines and rituals and that any unstructured time allows children to explore. “That really allows their interests to drive their learning. … Being out in nature has really supported the mental and physical health of children, improved academic and learning outcomes, increased engagement and enthusiasm in learning, and increased performance.”
Thorne Nature Experience offers additional opportunities for outdoor learning through the Thorne Nature Preschool, the Lil’ Explorers play program for parents and their children, and community and family programs with hands-on nature experiences for people of all ages. There also is the Thorne’s Bird Banding Club for ages 11-15 to meet after school every week January to May and the EdVenturers Club for donors to get first-hand experiences of programming.
Lafayette resident Christine Berg’s 5-year-old daughter, Lumina Wood, is a student in Thorne Nature Preschool, and her older daughter, Sunny Wood, 8, previously attended the summer camps.
“The imaginative play they can do in nature is extraordinary. Being in nature and using natural materials like sticks and sand and drawing with pebbles, they all become part of the … narrative,” said Berg, a board member for Thorne Nature Experience. “Because she spends so much time outside, she brings the spirit of making things and creating things to the other parts of her life.”
Lumina loves going outside and doing things such as camping as she discovers the ways she’s connected to the natural world, Berg said
“You can run and play and interact. That’s what kids need, and it’s physically how they move their bodies in the world,” Berg said.
The programming at Thorne Nature Experience aims to get kids like Lumina outside while also addressing a few statistics — for instance, children grow up indoors, at least partially, spending an average of 50 hours a week looking at a TV or computer screen, Desrosiers said. But those from Generation X and previous generations typically spent their time outdoors, whether they lived in an urban or rural environment, he said. They had access to empty lots and other spaces where they could play and mostly be safe about it, but a rise in technology and other factors brought children indoors, he said.
Thorne Nature Experience promotes a progression of place that’s outdoors from the backyard to the back country to national parks to even larger spaces.
Children need to start by connecting with species in their own yards before they can have concern about saving species in other countries, Desrosiers said. This connection and love of other creatures creates a sense of earth stewardship, he said.
The head, heart, hands and feet all need to be involved for stewardship to occur, Desrosiers said. The head involves the academic knowledge of understanding organisms, systems of ecology and principles like climate change, moving from literally the birds and bees to habitats to climate change. The heart is the emotional connection to living things and having a sense of empathy for others. The hands involve taking action and doing service. And the feet are connected to place-based experiences and a sense of place that develops from repeated visits.
“The way we look at that is a whole-child approach,” Saunders said. “Traditional schools have the academic head piece. We know that the nature connection is about the emotional connection, so that brings in the heart piece. When there’s a deep heart connection, a deep emotional connection to nature, that’s where the stewardship value arises.”
As such, the head, heart, hands and feet connections need to be on a continuum.
“If you miss one of these things, it’s hard to connect with the next one,” Desrosiers said.
Experiences for the head, heart, hands and feet also have to be age-appropriate and resonate with children. Planting trees, for example, is something too advanced for a preschooler, who won’t connect to the work and understand the context of what’s happening, Desrosiers said. Likewise, young children can grasp the idea of recycling but need more education and experience before they can understand restoration programs, he said.
“It all boils down to a simple foundational space of love and connection to other living things. Without that, it’s a nonstarter,” Desrosiers said. “Once you build a connection to the natural world, you care about it. … After all these experiences outside, these beautiful times, there is care.”
Thorne Nature Experience aims to provide connection for all youth, regardless of race, ethnicity or family income, offering more than $150,000 in scholarships each year for youth to attend the Thorne Summer Camps — one in four campers receive them. The nonprofit offers another $500,000 in camp scholarships and subsidized school programs through its Nature for All Initiative.
“One of the things our organization does (is ensure) education is available to all youth in our community,” Desrosiers said.