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President's Letter: Finding Nature in Early Childhood

I have many fond memories of hiking through the woods and paddling on lakes with my family as a young child growing up in Minnesota. Research shows that positive experiences such as these are essential to creating a love of nature later in life, and a dedication to protecting and sharing it with others.

The Forest Preserves of Cook County provide a place for children and families to explore nature, where they can feel welcome and safe. We’ve long been a leader in environmental education through our innovative nature centers.

And we continue to innovate as new science and thought emerges around the world. Over the past few years, we’ve developed several “nature play areas,” a kind of halfway point between the built and the natural worlds, where kids can reacquaint themselves with the joys of playing freely with sticks, grass and mud and find a greater level of comfort in nature. At new nature play areas at Crabtree Nature Center, Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center and Trailside Museum—and coming soon to Dan Ryan Woods—a child’s imagination is virtually the only limit.

The Forest Preserves hosts many structured programs for young children, too, including our nature center series such as Mother Nature and Me, Wee Wanderer Wednesdays, Tots and Trails and Small Serendipity. We’ve also been a proud participant in Chicago Wilderness’ Leave No Child Inside initiative for many years.

Most recently, we were excited to partner with the Brookfield Zoo to participate in their award-winning NatureStart program. Together we’re training our education staff to engage even more effectively with toddlers, other young children and their families. And because this unique program brings our staff together with staff from community-based childhood centers, we are connecting to many families who may not yet know about all the preserves have to offer.

NatureStart is just one of the many ways we work together with our partners, Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Botanic Garden. Integrating their expertise in education, programming and visitor services is one of the recommended actions in our Next Century Conservation Plan, so you’re likely to see much more of their influence in the years to come.

Spring is coming, and with it many great opportunities to explore the wild with the young ones in your life. I recommend starting at one of our six nature centers and going from there. There’s a lot of fun to be had!

Toni Preckwinkle, President
Forest Preserves of Cook County