This nature program lets your kids go wild

Bellingham School District students participate in Wild Whatcom’s EdVentures school program at Larrabee State Park in May 2017.
Bellingham School District students participate in Wild Whatcom’s EdVentures school program at Larrabee State Park in May 2017. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

If you have a young nature enthusiast – or maybe a young person who would like to learn about nature – Wild Whatcom could well be the organization for your child.

Wild Whatcom was established as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2011, but it has conducted activities for 15 years, so it’s been around and so have thousands of students with regard to nature scenes of all types.

“We’re a community nonprofit dedicated to connecting people with nature,” says Emily Highleyman, in her fifth year as executive director. “We serve all ages, but there is a strong emphasis on youth.”

Objectives include developing positive character traits through exploration and discovery in the outdoors through experiential learning.

Sammy Jolly, in her second year as field operations manager, calls the organization’s emphasis “a focus on child-led exploration. Their interests outside guide us in what we offer them to spark their curiosity.”

Each school year, Wild Whatcom works with most elementary schools in the Bellingham area including Title I schools (those that offer free or reduced lunches).

There are no fees for two in-school based programs, though permission of parents or guardians is required. One is known as EdVentures and the other is SEED, for Student Experiential Education and Discovery.

EdVentures is for second- and third-grade students, with three trips each year on weekdays. The first two trips are to a park near schools the students attend and the third trip, in May, takes second-graders to Larrabee State Park to the beach for tide-pooling and to play plant identification games. Both activities involve identification cards, so students learn from the cards what they have found.

For their final trip, third-graders participate in a nature art experience, such as creating a decorative mural out of rocks, sticks and other natural material.

“We partner with the teachers in each class. Two of our staff mentors go along with the teacher,” Jolly says of what amounts to fun outdoor field trips for several hours.

SEED partners with life skills teachers in special education programs for students with disabilities. All of the SEED programs are also held outdoors on weekdays.

Summer backpacking trips available

Neighborhood Nature is an optional after-school program during part of the academic year for first- through fifth-graders, also involving parks and child-led exploration.

Summer Adventures involve as many as 11 backpacking/camping trips from June through August for students entering fifth grade and older with parental permission.

“They are fee-based but scholarships are available,” said Jolly. “We go all around Western Washington. This summer, our trips are all in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which is immense,” she said. “These are trips of three to seven days and we camp in tents. There is no pre-requisite experience. We have a cap of 10 students on each trip, along with two staff mentors on every trip.”

These trips can fill quickly, so registration in March is recommended if possible.

Summer Adventures also has three- to five-day camps, with one trip overnight, for students entering first through sixth grades. These are ideal for introducing students to nature adventures.

Explorers Club is a cohort-based model for students 7 to 16 designed to foster earth skills, sense of adventure and naturalist knowledge, along with building self-confidence through experiential learning. They meet once a month on weekends for four- to seven-hour outings in Whatcom and Skagit counties during the school year.

“We’re open to all comers and to all experience levels in the outdoors,” said Jolly, noting that Wild Whatcom has a staff of about 25 mentors, including “outdoor first responders” with certification in safety skills. “We also provide loaner gear and other help students might need and we teach outdoor skills.”

For information, go to wildwhatcom.org or e-mail Info@wildwhatcom.org.