Families with small children trickle down the gravel road lined with trees. They are traveling at the pace of preschoolers, which is to say, slowly. Little ones notice things – they still have the gift of wonder. Just about anything can be a plaything, especially in nature. Several children discover slick icy patches to wiggle and “skate” on. Others find sticks that, with a little imagination, suddenly become official ‘walking sticks’ for their upcoming adventure in the woods.

It is a crisp winter morning in December, and the Cathance River Education Alliance (CREA) is hosting its first guided Storywalk for Preschoolers at the Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham.

What is StoryWalk? It’s a low-tech way for children and adults to enjoy reading and the outdoors at the same time. Laminated pages from a children’s book are attached to wooden stands spaced out along an outdoor path. If you want to read the whole story, you have to keep moving!

The Storywalk concept was developed in 2007 by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vermont, in collaboration with the Vermont Bicycle & Pedestrian Coalition and Kellogg Hubbard Library. Ferguson was working as a chronic disease prevention specialist and was looking for ways to inspire physical activity. She noticed that parents stand around and chat while their children run circles around them. So, she looked for an activity that would engage parents and children and motivate them to keep moving and walking. And it had to be free.

Since she developed the idea, Storywalks have been installed in 50 states and 12 countries. The Cathance River Education Alliance was drawn to the idea because its mission centers around nature-based learning. As CREA Board President Ellen Bennett explains, “We want to connect people with nature – to the benefit of both. In other words, we want both people and the natural world to benefit from the interaction. People who spend time in nature are generally good stewards of the natural world.”

While CREA has had Storywalks up for several years, this is the first year it held a guided walk. Judging from the reactions of the group on this crisp December morning, reading outdoors with new friends is a big hit with preschoolers.

Program host and CREA Camp Director Jenny Mueller entertained the earliest young visitors by guiding them around the impressive collection of native birds and mammals at CREA’s Ecology Center. Little voices echoed, “Wow!” and “What’s that?” and “Can I touch that?”

Once the group was complete, with 12 children outnumbering the eight adults, everyone ‘geared up’ for the cold and headed to the first storyboard at the beginning of the Barnes Leap Trail. The book, Over and Under the Snow, (written by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal), is about the secret world of squirrels, snowshoe hares, bears, bullfrogs, and other animals who live under the snow in winter.

Jenny, parents, grandparents and an eight-year-old older brother took turns reading the book. Everyone particularly enjoyed making the animal sounds sprinkled throughout the story.

Jenny modeled how to reinforce information presented in the story. As the ‘littles’ (as she called them) moved along the trail, she reminded them to look for animal tracks and burrow entrances (i.e. holes) in the snow, just like the ones shown in the story.

Jenny encouraged everyone to put on their “deer ears,” cupping hands around ears to hear more like these woodland creatures. “Can you hear better with deer ears?” she asked? “Yes!” “What can you hear now that you couldn’t before?” “The river!” a four-year-old boy exclaimed, then sprinted down the trail to find it.

After finishing the book, the group gathered at Barnes Leap and marveled at the rushing Cathance River which was wild from recent precipitation. The return route via the Cathance River Trail and a “secret” shortcut trail was more rugged. The children delighted in negotiating tree roots and rocks as they scouted for “ice pancakes” in the river and “Wow’ed!” over bright orange jelly fungus.

The outing ended with a warm up in the Ecology Center and cocoa. Several families read more winter-themed, nature books from the Ecology Center library, while others played with animal puppets.

The takeaway from this event is that children love to be outdoors in any season. While they may be shy at first, they quickly revel in the joy of discovery with their peers. The natural world is the perfect environment for young, developing brains. Many believe unstructured play outdoors promotes strength, creativity, imagination, exploration, risk management, self-confidence, and learning. Ironically, research shows that free time outdoors helps children learn to focus. And, time in nature reduces stress.

CREA will be hosting guided StoryWalks for preschoolers seasonally, whenever a new book is installed on the storyboards. Look for it on the Events page on the CREA website:   https://creamaine.org/events/. The StoryWalk is open to the public year-round at the Cathance River Nature Preserve. Naturalists of all ages are welcome, dusk to dawn, to enjoy the walk. The StoryWalk® can be found on the Barnes Leap Trail just past the CREA Ecology Center.

CREA’s Ecology Center is also open every Sunday, year-round, from 12-2 pm if you’d like to combine a visit with your StoryWalk adventure.

Caroline Eliot is the Executive Director of the Cathance River Education Alliance.


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