Wild Earth Helps Hudson Valley Children Connect With The Natural World

The first stirrings of Wild Earth began 16 years ago when a few Hudson Valley families sought backyard activities to bring their children closer to nature. The activities they organized,  continued to evolve, promoted by word of mouth, eventually becoming a 501(c)3 organization, known as Wild Earth.

Whether it’s exploratory field trips in the woods, hikes at summer camp or studying nature during a Kingston after school program, the organization’s goal is to help children see themselves as part of the natural world. All the programs use activities to foster curiosity and appreciate nature, empowering children through new challenges. One very simple activity is known as Sit Spot.

“Kids just sit there and observe the natural activity that’s all around them,” said Omari Washington, Wild Earth’s communications and connections director. “It really helps them identify that there is so much living all around us. You could be in the middle of Kingston and hear birds chirping, see a grasshopper. You may not see those things if you’re just walking your path today. You may not be paying attention, but there is life all around you.”

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Juniper Flats

Photo by Joan Vos Macdonald

There’s plenty of nature to observe in Juniper Flats, the 200-acre wooded expanse where Wild Earth holds some of its programs. Amid the former IBM recreational tract, now owned by Scenic Hudson, program participants can meet animals, identify plants, learn wilderness skills, work on crafts, and build connections.

“Kids see turkey here, they see deer,” said Zach Jones, a Wild Earth graduate and now program manager. “There have been a bunch of photographers coming past in the last couple of days because there’s a super rare bird migrating through here. The kids see hawks, they see eagles and begin to recognize them.”

The ever-growing variety of Wild Earth programs are staged at various locations. They include a Chickadee Parent-Tot Camp for three- and four-year-olds, Kestrel Camp for children 6 to 11, and Raven Camp for 11- to 14-year-olds. There’s also a Ropes wilderness program for teens, 14 to 18, where they can train as counselors. According to Jones, many participants  return to work, as he did, becoming either a staff member or helping out during summer camp.

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“They want to give back to the kids and foster community,” he said.

Wild Earth’s Kingfisher Camp for children, 8 to 12, includes transportation from Kingston and provides wraparound care at the YMCA.

“The Kingfisher Camp was created because the other camps that are in Accord or Kerhonkson, might present transportation issues for some families,” said Jones. “Even people who have transportation means, if you’re working, it can be hard to take your kid out to Kerhonkson, so having a camp that is more local to Kingston was important.”

Omari Washington and Zach Jones

Photo by Joan Vos Macdonald

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The organization also offers field trips in conjunction with Kingston schools, as well as specialized workshops.

After majoring in global environmental studies in college, Jones realized that the way nature is often spoken about may not be inclusive.

“We’re changing how we talk about nature, because we want all people to feel included,” said Jones.

Children who grow up in cities, such as Kingston, he says, may not have a home with a backyard or access to hiking trails, but there’s still nature to explore.

“There’s a hawk that used to live and hunt on Kingston’s Henry Street. That’s nature. Just because you can’t leave your block it doesn’t mean nature isn’t there.”

While fostering a stronger connection to the earth, programs also encourage teamwork. On a recent rainy day, the children in one of the programs did a fire challenge, using an ancient fire-building technique, still taught in indigenous communities around the world. The technique involves a lot of trial and error, especially on a soggy day.

“Just before the challenge started, I told them that I knew they were going to try hard, but it would be okay if they failed,” said Jones. “With perseverance and teamwork one of the groups managed to build a fire with wet material. There was such gratitude for each other.”

A small teacher-student ratio offers opportunities for mentorship that may not be available for children who don’t play sports.

Photo by Maggie Heinzel-Neel 

“I think it’s really cool what we do here, because we’re allowing people to have this type of relationship that you would only find in sports, but not everyone is a sports star. Not everyone is athletic.”

The program does not turn away children for lack of funds, instead using a tiered pricing system.

“We don’t want people to feel ashamed, to feel deterred,” said Jones. “Whatever you can bring to the system, as part of our tiered payscale, then that’s great, so please come and check us out.”

Funded by grants and private donations, the program only turns away applicants when filled to capacity. More staff is currently being trained so the program can expand. To celebrate its 16 years of existence, Wild Earth will have a Sweet 16 celebration on July 16 at Arrowood Farm Brewery In Accord.

“That will be a great time for people to come and celebrate with the organization and hear about some of our plans for the future,” said Washington.   

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