More educational opportunities than ever are available to visitors at Nebraska's State parks

Naturalist Maria Korver at Ponca State Park wants visitors to understand nature so they can enjoy being outdoors. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)
Amanda Filipi, a naturalist at four western Nebraska parks, enjoys working with visitors of all ages. (Photo courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
Lindsay Rogers with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission works with 15 naturalists across the state to provide a diverse range of programs. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)
Ponca State Park offers trail rides led by wranglers. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)
Amanda Filipi wants students to trade the screen for a stream and explore the outdoors. (Photo courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
Korver teaches archery to children from Yankton, South Dakota at Ponca State Park. (Photo by Pamela Thompson, NET News)
Leading day hikes across trails in western Nebraska is a popular activity for naturalist Filipi. (Photo courtesy NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission)
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August 1, 2018 - 6:45am

At a time when many people are glued to their screens, Nebraska's trying to encourage people to get outdoors.

It’s a beautiful summer day at Ponca State Park in northeast Nebraska, as a wrangler helps a visitor onto a horse for a trail ride. That’s just one of the activities being offered in the state’s parks and recreation areas. If you’ve ever wanted to throw a tomahawk, shoot a pellet rifle, build a campfire, sketch a landscape or feed a turtle, you can do that, too.

Lindsay Rogers, outdoors and wildlife specialist at Nebraska Game and Parks, says educational programming has grown measurably across the state in the last five years.

“We have added numerous naturalists at state park areas,” Rogers said. “The goal of these naturalists is to engage a wide diversity of audiences.”

An outdoor visitor holds a cricket frog at Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area. (Photo courtesy Bobbi Holm)

While not every state park or recreation area has its own naturalist, Rogers says there are 15 serving parks across the state this summer. Some naturalists serve more than one park, like Amanda Filipi who works at Chadron, Fort Robinson, Lake Minatare and Wildcat Hills.

Filipi said many visitors – particularly families -- want to learn something from a guided experience while being in nature.

“They want somebody to lead them on a hike, teach them about the area, the eco-system, and point different things out to them, so we’re really seeing that increase on some of those programming, and on other more special event type programming,” Filipi said.

Morning dew on a primrose. (Photo courtesy Bobbi Holm)

Research shows today’s young people spend on average 50 hours a week using electronic media. Filipi said many children choose a screen over a stream because they haven’t been exposed to outdoor experiences.

She said young people tend to be overscheduled with afterschool activities like soccer and band practice, leaving them little time for outdoor exploration and discovery.

“There’s not just time for them to just go and play outside and pretend to be whatever they want to be,” she said. “I think that’s really affecting their creativity, and their imagination a little bit.”

Filipi said she likes to engage students in the nature surrounding them by using quirky facts about plants, birds, and wildlife. What they don’t know about their own backyards still surprises her.  

A goldfinch nestles in its nest. (Photo courtesy Bobbi Holm)

“A lot of people—especially students who come out to the nature center on a field trip—can name things that live in the jungle, or things that live on the tundra or the rainforest, which is great, but they don’t know what is in their own backyard. They don’t have that sense of place,” Filipi said.

To teach more awareness about western Nebraska, Filipi said she focuses on cool creatures like the spittlebug, bats, bighorn sheep and wild turkeys.

Another naturalist, Maria Korver at Ponca State Park, wants visitors to learn to be comfortable outdoors and believes not being afraid or ill at ease will heighten their enjoyment of nature.

“A professor once told me “you see what you know.” So as we learn more about the outdoors—and the plants and animals that call Nebraska their home—we really understand what’s going on around us,” Korver said.

A soldier beetle lands on a sunflower. (Photo courtesy Bobbi Holm)

Bobbi Holm is a naturalist at Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area. Holm said finding the right audience for slower activities like hikes focused on journaling, birds, or photography has been a challenge at a park where most people come for boating and water sports.

Holm says nature is therapeutic, and close observation can intensify the experience. She recommends keeping field notes while outdoors – like a biologist – and recording personal impressions and feelings.

“Just that slowing down in nature is calming,” she said. “You just feel more in tune with the environment, and it’s restful and peaceful.”

Looking at nature up close gives the viewer a personal connection. (Photo courtesy Bobbi Holm)

Holm said paying close attention by using a camera, a pencil or a sketchpad can reawaken a deeply reflective, intimate, even spiritual connection with nature.

“I want people to get out of it what they would like to get out of it at a deeper level, maybe than they had thought about before," Holm said. "To experience nature in some way so that they go home and say, that was cool, and I’d like to do that again.”

Holm said enjoying a particular moment in nature can be a gateway to a deeper interest in studying something like astronomy, outdoor cooking or wildflowers. And it can have other benefits.

“Our world is so fast-paced and so electronically focused now, that taking a break from all that, having a natural experience that can just be in your backyard, or in your neighborhood, to experience the green, and the bugs and the dirt—that’s a good thing,” Holm said. 

Filipi likes to offer visitors a hands-on approach to experiencing nature. She said the advantages of being outdoors and engaged in the natural world are as abundant as nature itself.

“I feel like the programming that we’re offering in all our state parks is really necessary; it is opening that world back up to say, ‘hey, you can come out and you can sit down and watch the clouds and listen to the wind,’” Filipi said. “It’s OK not to be structured your whole time, and it’s OK to just sit back and relax.”




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