Ben Romo: Today I’m very happy to speak with Dan Fontaine, executive director at the Wilderness Youth Project.

Dan Fontaine: At WYP, we have a dream that Santa Barbara can be at the forefront of the growing movement to reconnect children with nature, so I’m grateful to have this chance to convey the benefits of nature connection in the hope that our whole community unites behind the idea.

BR: I’m in. My life has changed for the better since I made hiking and backpacking a priority, and it’s important to me that I include my daughter, Ruby, in these activities. What benefits do you see in children who are connected with nature?

DF: Yale University social ecologist Stephen R. Kellert put this well when he said, “Children’s direct and regular experience of the natural world is an essential, irreplaceable dimension of healthy maturation and development.”

At WYP, we talk about the ways time in nature, and particularly time in nature with a mentor, makes children smarter, healthier and happier. There’s science behind that but, more important, we witness it in action every single day we’re outdoors with kids.

Nature is a force for good in children’s lives unlike anything else out there. Connecting with nature is a direct path to connecting with self. At WYP, we think that’s the biggest benefit there is.

People who haven’t experienced our program through their children tend to think that we go on hikes. Actually, we typically cover very little ground. When given the freedom, kids find endless fascination on surprisingly small areas of landscape, and I think a lot of people would be surprised by how much can be discovered in a small space.

BR: What resources do you offer for parents of children 0-5 to help with this?

DF: Children learn differently than adults. When young children are allowed to “just” play in nature, deep learning takes place in the areas of science, math, physics and engineering. In addition, this nature pedagogy emphasizes social and emotional development as well as kindness, compassion, empathy, cooperation and teamwork, all while encouraging patience, emotional resilience and risk assessment.

WYP offers place-based nature programs during the school year and summer for ages 3 and up. Families interested in joining us can click here to learn more.

In the spring, together with the Storyteller Children’s Center staff, we create a Family Camp at Arroyo Hondo Preserve. It’s an opportunity for the families, WYP mentors, Storyteller teachers and support staff to experience a transformative weekend.

Family Camp participants building family and brain connections.
Family Camp participants building family and brain connections. (Wilderness Youth Project photo)

Alicia Jimenez, one of the program’s teachers, wrote us “Through time outdoors, our students develop new language and begin to develop a deeper understanding of the world around them. Some families, including parents and grandparents, join us on outings. The kids inspire the parents to interact with the outdoors, sharing their newfound love of nature.”

Fue una experiencia muy bonita para nuestra familia ya que estuvimos más cerca con todos y descubrimos que la naturaleza te trae una paz increíble — It was a very nice experience for our family because we were closer to everyone and discovered that nature brings you incredible peace.”

The Sanchez family wrote that note to us during our most recent Storyteller Family Camp. WYP partners with the Storyteller Children’s Center to provide WYP to all of their participants throughout the school year.

We’re also working on a parent manual that will help parents who don’t come out to events — one tool we’re using there is a list of great questions to get students talking about their experiences with WYP.

BR: We’ve just finished a month-long campaign about the importance of talking, reading and singing for children’s brain development. What’s your favorite Talk, Read, Sing activity to do in the wilderness?

The Wilderness Youth Project has found that kids inspire their parents to interact with the outdoors, too.
The Wilderness Youth Project has found that kids inspire their parents to interact with the outdoors, too. (Wilderness Youth Project photo)

DF: Personally, my daughter is just nuts about us singing, and especially combined with dancing. Her current favorite is “I love the flowers, I love the daffodils ...” We do little hand movements for the flowers, mountains and hills, and she just asks for it all the time — indoors and out.

BR: I’m going to find a really awkward YouTube video to teach everyone that song.

DF: It’s a catchy one. On the WYP side, we like to encourage reflection and talking with our participants. We always focus on sharing gratitude, which has a long lineage before it came to us called Giving Thanks. It can be as simple as taking a moment to take turns saying something we are all grateful for.

I have to add one more personal anecdote. We first saw our pediatrician when our daughter was 1 week old, and one element of her prescription (she used that word) was reading our daughter three books a day. Even though I was pretty aware of the talk, read, sing message, I was surprised to hear that books were advised from birth.

Our pediatrician said that even though she won’t understand the words or the pictures yet, she’ll come into those capacities and this routine will result in a love for books, stories and learning.

Wilderness Youth Project executive director Dan Fontaine reading to infant daughter Laurel.
Wilderness Youth Project executive director Dan Fontaine reading to infant daughter Laurel. ( Fontaine family photo)

And that’s exactly what happened. Our daughter has a “nook” on the floor with a small bookshelf just for her, and she just loves it. It’s often the first place she goes when she wakes up, and the last place before bed, and multiple times during the day.

The Fontaine Family Reading Nook.
The Fontaine Family Reading Nook. (Fontaine family photo)

BR: I love all the nature books in the nook. You’re the parent of a young daughter. What advice can you offer new parents seeking to find work/life balance?

DF: My daughter, Laurel, is 18 months old, and I’m definitely still seeking that advice for myself. As far as I can tell at this point, the only thing a parent can really do is ask for support. On the home front, my parents and in-laws are very supportive even though they are all very far away.

I feel very fortunate that on the work front WYP is very kid-friendly. Our parental leave policy is more generous than usual, and there are lots of other perks and accommodations for staff with children.

The only real advice I have would be for people who don’t have kids yet, but plan to. Your friends who have kids before you do probably need a lot more help than you think they need, and any support you give to them will likely get repaid when you have kids of your own.

Feeling connected to my work helps with balance. I changed careers into the nonprofit sector because I wanted to feel a tangible connection between my daily efforts and the future quality of my community. There are, of course, lots of ways to do that, but kids and nature have always been a draw for me, so I feel incredibly fortunate to have found a way to combine it all.

Growth and development are miraculous things, and to borrow a phrase I heard on the radio the other day, it’s a privilege to sit at that table.

BR: I was so happy to see that your “Bridge to Nature Campaign” has been very successful. What returns can the community expect to see from their investment in WYP?

DF: At Wilderness Youth Project, nature connection is our bottom line. Your investment in this program is measured in smarter, healthier happier futures for children. Beyond the statistics from our evaluations, we think stories and pictures are the best way to share this “ROI.”

A Franklin School fourth-grader shared this drawing after a trip to Lizard’s Mouth with WYP and said, “I look out and see the ocean, the town, the world. This is one place where I can just be who I am: I can run, jump, sit, hide and explore. I am amazed by this place and wonder what extraordinary animals live here.”

Stories like this one (and there are many!) illustrate how your contribution inspires children to follow their curiosity and feel connected in the natural world.

Ruby and Ben Romo on a recent backpacking trip.
Ruby and Ben Romo on a recent backpacking trip. (Romo family photo)

We can have this type of impact because of our partners. We have local agencies, like CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), send kids our way via referrals. We partner with agencies with similar missions, like First 5 Santa Barbara County, to find mutually supportive arrangements towards the same goals.

Of course, we’re also grateful to our funding partners, local businesses and civic groups that contribute to our scholarship fund.

Being given the opportunity to partner with the Santa Barbara Unified School District and deliver WYP programs as part of the school day represents a high water mark for us.

When Amy Alzina was principal at Adams School, she wrote “Wilderness Youth Project has sparked new hope and an excitement for learning in our students. These at-risk students are experiencing “success” for the first time in their lives. Their self-confidence and love for learning is what we as educators strive to achieve in all of our children.”

BR: My daughter, Ruby, is a proud fifth-grade Adams Tiger and she has been on numerous WYP field trips into our local natural areas. She and I spend a good amount of time in nature, but I know for some kids in her class, those trips represent the first time they have been able to explore nature in that way. Thanks Dan and Wilderness Youth Project for all you do.

— Ben Romo is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.