San Francisco Is Helping Kids Develop a Love of Nature

Here’s how the city is partnering with several groups and organizations to create equitable access to nature programming for its youth.

This is a guest post by Tracy Muckey.

This spring, Yolanda and three of her children joined a YMCA of San Francisco Family Camp in the Marin Headlands, a national park located on a hilly peninsula at the southernmost end of Marin County, California. Only after a weekend of hiking, tidepooling, service work, and other outdoor recreation did Yolanda share on the bus ride back to the city that she was unemployed and her family is struggling with homelessness.

“Going on a hike and being a part of different families, different cultures, and different people gave me my hope back,” said Yolanda. “[The YMCA Family Camp] made me feel like everything is going to be OK. I’m from Mississippi, but [we] don’t experience the woods like this. We had such a beautiful time. I can breathe again.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior is the lead agency for former first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Outside initiative, which seeks to inspire and foster nature lovers for life. The department was joined by the YMCA and the National League of Cities (NLC) to coordinate efforts to bridge the growing disconnect between young people and the great outdoors by creating meaningful connections to nature through four pillars: play, learn, serve and work. The YMCA Family Camp attended by Yolanda and her children was funded by San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families.

In San Francisco, the Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative and Let’s Move! Outside provide the foundation for a collective focus on access and equity in nature, and reinforce pathways for organizational partnerships that create and support life-changing experiences for underserved families such as Yolanda’s.

(YMCA of San Francisco)

There is an increasing need for cities, government agencies, nonprofits and public organizations to partner together to help kids develop a love for nature and to build future stewards of our public lands. Through the Let’s Move! Outside initiative, many are learning strategies to build successful partnerships.

“We’ve seen a huge range of families attend our Family Camps, from those who enjoy nature and are looking for an accessible and affordable experience for their urban kids to those families who haven’t yet had an outdoor experience together. Approximately half of our families who attend Family Camp are able to do so through grant funding or financial assistance. Yolanda credits this time away ‘in nature’ with helping her have the breathing room to find a job and work towards permanent housing for her family,” said Lara Hitchcock, senior executive director of the Presidio Community and Point Bonita YMCAs.

Working Together

The YMCA of San Francisco — in partnership with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the Presidio Trust — piloted the Let’s Move! Outside initiative for Bay Area youth in the summer of 2015. In its inaugural year, 411 youth participants engaged in meaningful outdoor experiences and connected to the wonders of national parks through recreation, education, volunteerism and employment.

(YMCA of San Francisco)

Ninety-five percent of the campers qualified for free or reduced lunch programs at their schools and were awarded scholarships for this camp. The program saw 620 youth served in the summer of 2016, and summer 2017 will bring more than 800 youth through this camp program.

The number one suggestion from youth participants was to enable their families to participate alongside them in outdoor activities in the national park. From this desire, Family Camp was born in 2016, focusing on the families of fourth grade students in underserved communities to further support the goals of the Every Kid in a Park Initiative.

Building on Growth

Family Camp weekends provide families with transportation and overnight experiences at the Point Bonita YMCA in the Marin Headlands. Families engage in Junior Ranger activities, evening campfires, wellness activities, and service projects such as trail maintenance and beach cleanups with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

Lack of access presents one of the biggest barriers to participation for families, and the YMCA considers program-provided buses to Family Camp as critical as the outdoor programming itself.

Cities Connecting Children to Nature San Francisco has a commitment to connect all children with a range of nature-based experiences. Twenty-five organizations and agencies are working together towards the vision of “nature connection for every child, every day.” The collaborative has identified four key aspects of this vision: targeting early childhood environments, neighborhood environments, youth and community engagement, and cultural relevance.

In Yolanda’s case, the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Families, the San Francisco Unified Public-School District (John Muir School), NPS at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the YMCA all worked together to make her family’s participation possible. What began as a relationship-building weekend for urban families and classroom teachers in the Marin Headlands has blossomed into a monthly opportunity to engage families in outdoor wellness in a place where people can safely access the outdoors.

Since the inception of the Family Camp Weekends eight months ago, more than 45 underserved families have attended the program. It resumes in August 2017 with partnerships and pathways for family engagement in place across the city. Learn more about how the YMCA is nurturing youth in this capacity so they can reach their full potential in life.

Featured image courtesy of YMCA of San Francisco.

About the author: Tracy Muckey is the project manager for Let’s Move! Outside.