Outdoor recreation – from fishing and picnicking to gardening and playing with mud – is a part of our way of life. Chicago Wilderness believes that children and adults of all backgrounds have the right to play outside, experience nature, and engage in outdoor activities that have been passed down from generation to generation. But major demographic groups – for example, first-generation Latino immigrants – are vastly underrepresented among nature program participants and public land users in our region.
In Waukegan and North Chicago, Illinois, where 3 out of 5 children are of Hispanic or Latino origin, Chicago Wilderness members are working with cultural heritage, youth development, and social service organizations in the community to find new ways to better connect with Latino families. Organizations leading this collaborative Leave No Child Inside effort include Friends of Ryerson Woods, Lake County Forest Preserves, First Baptist Church of Waukegan, Waukegan Harbor Citizens Advisory Group, Chicago Botanic Garden, Waukegan Public Library and Park District, and others.
Some of the group’s strategies to bridge the gap between Leave No Child Inside programs and the Latino community are to build on what is familiar – such as gardening, picnicking, or soccer practices – and to provide relevant benefits for program participants – for example, life or job skills, or health-promoting activities.
One collaborative program developed by the group was delivered in April of 2013, when more than 50 middle-school students active in Waukegan’s Puro Futbol Youth Soccer League participated in nature-based team-building exercises at Greenbelt Forest Preserve, in North Chicago. Given that trust is one of the most important factors in engaging Latino families in programs run by public agencies, the Lake County Forest Preserves and Chicago Wilderness engaged a well-respected community leader, the youth soccer league’s coordinator, in developing and promoting the nature-based team outings. The program was designed to use an activity that the children were passionate about – soccer – to introduce them to nature. During the span of four weeks, the youth learned not only to work more effectively with each other, but also to build forts out of natural materials and solve other challenges that required them to work as a team. While the youth participated in the team-building exercises, their parents were introduced to the forest preserve site through bilingual interpretive hikes led by Friends of Ryerson Woods and the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Green Youth Farm. Funding for the program was provided in part by TogetherGreen, a partnership of National Audubon Society and Toyota.
The collaborative effort validated the Waukegan Leave No Child Inside network’s shift from simply distributing information about upcoming programs to engaging in a two-way conversation with the Latino community about program outcomes that are valuable to everyone. As the youth soccer league’s program coordinator put it in an editorial in a Spanish-language weekly, “this is an effort to give the children more than soccer – it’s an opportunity for them to discover and learn about nature.”