Teaching kids a love of the natural world

Caption for Children in Outdoor Preschool: Children in the Outdoor Preschool program enjoy playing and learning in nature at the Foothills Learning Center. (Photo provided by FLC)

By Gaye Bunderson

Nature surrounds us and, yet, we frequently fail to experience it to the fullest. Helping people of all ages get the most from nature’s bounty and beauty is Alex Brooks, newly named education manager of both the Foothills Learning Center and Boise Urban Garden School.
Brooks, who has worked with the City of Boise Parks & Recreation Department for five years, received her new title in April and said of the Foothills Learning Center and BUGS, as it is known, “They work as sister organizations, and their emphasis is on environmental education, focusing on being outdoors, and nature.”
She continued, “Basically our goal is to teach children and adults to be stewards of the ecosystem, to understand their surroundings and appreciate them, with hopes that they would conserve and protect their environment.”
Foothills Learning Center (full name: Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center; acronym: FLC) is located at 3188 Sunset Peak Rd. in Boise. BUGS is at 2995 N. Five Mile Rd. in Boise. Though both facilities are located in Boise, people from throughout the valley are welcome to participate in their programs – and there are a variety of programs to choose from. For the purposes of this article, the focus is on fall and winter and year-round programs, and how they are imparting a love of the environment to participants.
“I see the most hope in our Outdoor Preschool program for 3- to 5-year-olds. There are kids who don’t get outside very often, and they come to Foothills Learning Center, and it becomes ‘their place’. Through their time with us, they start to observe changes in their surroundings and become critical thinkers,” Brooks said, explaining the youngsters experience changes in the seasons, the environment, and in themselves. “We are involved in emotional and social learning, too, teaching kids to respect others, themselves, and their environment.”
Outdoor Preschool takes place from August to May.
One huge fan of Outdoor Preschool is local mother Emily Smith, who homeschools her two oldest children, Felix, 7, and Luella, 5. “There’s no elementary homeschool version of Outdoor Preschool,” she said, explaining it’s good to have access to a program like that through FLC.
Smith stated her family – including dad Justin – is intentional about getting outside, and FLC and BUGS are two resources they’ve found valuable. “We love to be outside and want to instill a love of the outdoors in our kids, (for them) to be outside and play.”
For the Smith family, it’s not just strictly about recreation but also respect for nature. Smith said the children are being exposed to environmental care, and that, “Our children are little environmental activists. We have a strong desire for them to learn.”
Eco-topics are explored at both sites in various programs and include climate change education. “We try to make it less scary and easier to understand,” Brooks said.
Programs for adults include a monthly birding class and a monthly hiking tour.
Smith takes her oldest child to the birding classes as part of his homeschooling. The other participants are happy to see Felix, a young birder. “He’ll sit quietly through a lecture,” said his mom.
Her son loves his time at both FLC and BUGS; at FLC, he’s learned about winter ecology, birds of prey, and wildflowers; at BUGS, he enjoys how the kids get to pick and choose from various activities, such as planting strawberries and/or composting. As for Luella, she loves her teachers, she told her mom.
BUGS also holds adult culinary classes, where people can learn to grow their own products and make environmentally friendly meals. These kinds of activities are catching on with the public.
“We have seen a huge increase in interest from people in growing their own food, in growing a garden at home or in growing a community garden,” Brooks said. “People think they have to have a green thumb, but we encourage them to just get out there and try it. It’s good for them: physically, mentally, and environmentally.
“I believe everyone could be a gardener, and BUGS is a great resource. We teach people to be realistic – don’t attempt a large garden all at once for the first time. Start with a few herbs and go from there.”
BUGS’ property includes a quarter-acre farm that is frequently in need of people to help out, and there are volunteer learning opportunities. Also, a BUGS Community Day is free and open to the public (see contact information in this article).
Fall/winter programs at Foothill Learning Center include Storytrail Adventure, Homeschool Days, Foothill Family Days, and a Parent/Child Nature Class aimed at parents who work full-time all week and are not able to take their children to programs Monday-Friday. Parents and their children go on a short hike and participate together in nature-related activities.
More fall programs include school field trips, as well as in-class presentations that align with schools’ science standards.
Both Foothills Learning Center and the Boise Urban Garden School are open year-round. Summer camps are held each year and registration starts early, so check websites for more information and to register. The online calendar is at https://bee.cityofboise.org/learn/calendar; activity registration is at https://www.cityofboise.org/departments/parks-and-recreation/activity-registration/.
Brooks, 31, is the parent of a little boy who turned 1 this past May. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a Master’s in education.
The Smith family moved to Idaho three years ago when Justin’s job was transferred here. Though Emily Smith admits the family never previously considered moving to the Gem State, she said that, once here, they realized it’s a good fit for them – “Idaho has all the activities we love to do.”

For more information on these and other programs, visit https://bee.cityofboise.org/visit/foothills-learning-center/ or https://www.boiseurbangardenschool.org; or contact ambrooks@cityofboise.org.

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