Exploring in stream exploring during GoU with Mary Bures

Great Outdoors University (GoU) brings outdoor adventures to kids of all ages who have limited opportunities to explore the natural world. For many, a GoU experience is the first time they’ve had a chance to connect with the great outdoors – whether it’s exploring a lake by canoe, learning to fish, observing wildlife up close, romping through the woods or mucking about in creeks. 

The Great Outdoors University is an experiential education program that teaches the importance of conserving wildlife habitat. Kids gain new skills, build self-confidence, work with positive role models and experience teamwork and hands-on problem-solving. We chatted with Program Director Mary Bures about how GoU is continuing to connect with kids through the coronavirus pandemic.

Mary Bures joined NCWF in 2012 to help the organization create meaningful programming for  kids in nature. She and her team of GoU mentors are always finding new ways to help kids experience and understand the natural world, so they will learn to enjoy and value it. Witnessing the smiles, excitement and fascination that kids express during GoU day trips and explorations of the great outdoors, fuels Mary’s passion to continue this work. 

Mary and kids at a GoU adventure

NCWF: How has GoU programming shifted due to the coronavirus? What are you doing differently? 

Mary: With the coronavirus pandemic requiring social distancing and shelter in place, GoU had to get even more innovative and creative. We took the opportunity to connect virtually with kids and families by offering fun videos that support STEM activities with easily accessible supplies. These hands-on minds-on, inquiry-based activities encourage creativity, problem-solving, learning, and they are a fun way to focus on the great outdoors. We’re also sharing observations from experts in the field through YouTube videos.

We have just launched the Outside Every Day Pledge to inspire everyone to get the kids in their lives outside for at least 30 minutes every day for 30 days. When people take the pledge, they receive tips, videos with DIY Stem Experiments and nature-based activities, invitations to education webinars and raffle opportunities from me to help them achieve their goal. It’s a fun way to stay engaged and challenge kids to commit to getting outside on a regular basis.  The challenge officially ends July 15, but you can Take the Pledge any time before that to receive the benefits. Really, it’s never too late to set a goal to get outside regularly!

Additionally, GoU is hosting weekly video calls for participants and staff from partner organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of North Carolina, providing opportunities to connect with others while following safety protocols. While we’d prefer to meet in person and explore the natural world together on a trail, lake or stream, at least we can do it together virtually. The virtual meet-ups fuel the children’s interest in getting outside, explore neighborhoods and experience the many benefits of being outdoors. For example, we did a webinar on birding by ear and how to make field observations that the kids really enjoyed.

Today’s kids spend less time engaging in “free play” outdoors in nature. The negative impact – on their health and development  – often referred to as ‘nature deficit disorder’ – is now well documented by scientific studies. Unstructured play improves concentration, cognitive ability, and lessens hyperactivity and aggression. With the pressures of the pandemic looming large, time in nature can help kids blow off steam, reduce stress and anxiety, and combat depression. I hope these virtual gatherings empower kids to experience wildlife and the outdoors right outside their front door no matter where they live.

Little examining a spider web at a Great Outdoors University event.

A day trip adventurer marvels at a spider web in the morning light.

NCWF: What are some of the most well-received videos and classes you’ve done?

Mary: Each participant has their particular favorite based in part on the things that interest them most. Birding by Ear was a popular class where we presented kids with photos and sounds of common birds in our area. We then had a matching game where we played a bird call and they had to identify which bird made that sound.

Of the videos we’ve shared, Critter Playground, Nature Discovery Hunt, Pine Cone Barometer, Bridge for Wildlife, Sun Time Activity and Kitchen Scrap Garden were among the favorites. Explorations with a wildlife expert on snakes and salamander egg masses were also interesting and popular. We will keep posting videos to the GoU Outdoor Activities for Kids Playlist on NCWF’s Youtube page, and people can subscribe to the page to have activities ready at hand.

NCWF: What kind of feedback have you heard from parents?

Mary: Parents are very appreciative of the daily offerings focused on the great outdoors. They’re enjoying the suggestions for fun ways to engage their kids while sheltering in place, with the added benefit of the projects being educational and at little to no cost. We’ve provided activities that use everyday items usually found around the house or outside. This way, it doesn’t create an extra expense or burden of having to purchase supplies online.

NCWF: How are the kids responding?

Mary: The kids are having fun with the challenges! They’re sticking with them through trial and error until successful, which is a beautiful part of the learning process. Parents are sharing pictures of their children’s finished projects and the kids are developing a desire to learn new skills. One girl who attended the Birding by Ear class said, “I want to get better at this.”

NCWF: What activities do you have planned for the rest of spring and summer?

Mary: We will continue to create and develop new activities. We’ll offer a new class each week and a new video each weekday, so be sure to join us online (social links are at the end of this article) for some virtual fun with GoU and the great outdoors. Plus, we’re already scheduling future programs, so we’ll be ready when it’s safe for GoU day trips and events to start again.

NCWF: How has the coronavirus pandemic helped move kids from indoors to outside? 

Mary: If there is a positive side to the pandemic, it’s that people have turned to the outdoors for stress relief, comfort, exercise and fun. Families are spending more time together, schedules are less hectic and cars are staying parked.

Nature and all its wonders offer a model of resilience we need now more than ever. The hope and renewal of springtime is outside our doors and is an inspiration in challenging times. Kids are going outside perhaps out of boredom initially but then finding a world of wonders: Trees are budding, flowers are blooming, baby birds are fledging, chipmunks are scurrying, deer are grazing, and snakes and turtles are sunning.

It’s like we hit the pause button, and we’re able to reset and adjust our focus. Social distancing requirements and restrictions on the use of shared equipment, such as playgrounds, is fostering a return to creative, imaginative play in the outdoors. If we take the time to build community and find this silver lining, appreciate it, value it and care for it, it will help make the world a better place long into the future.