CREA Storywalk® Gets Families Moving Outdoors

Learn how CREA’s Storywalk® is getting families outdoors – even in winter!

Excerpts from the Portland Press Herald – January 30, 2020

Families with small children trickle down the gravel road lined with trees. They are traveling at the pace of preschoolers, which is to say, slowly. Little ones notice things – they still have the gift of wonder. Just about anything can be a plaything, especially in nature. Several children discover slick icy patches to wiggle and “skate” on. Others find sticks that, with a little imagination, suddenly become official ‘walking sticks’ for their upcoming adventure in the woods.

It is a crisp winter morning in December, and the Cathance River Education Alliance (CREA) is hosting its first guided Storywalk for Preschoolers at the Cathance River Nature Preserve in Topsham…

While CREA has had Storywalks up for several years, this is the first year it held a guided walk. Judging from the reactions of the group on this crisp December morning, reading outdoors with new friends is a big hit with preschoolers.

Program host and CREA Camp Director Jenny Mueller entertained the earliest young visitors by guiding them around the impressive collection of native birds and mammals at CREA’s Ecology Center. Little voices echoed, “Wow!” and “What’s that?” and “Can I touch that?”

Once the group was complete, with 12 children outnumbering the eight adults, everyone ‘geared up’ for the cold and headed to the first storyboard at the beginning of the Barnes Leap Trail. The book, Over and Under the Snow, (written by Kate Messner with art by Christopher Silas Neal), is about the secret world of squirrels, snowshoe hares, bears, bullfrogs, and other animals who live under the snow in winter.

Jenny, parents, grandparents and an eight-year-old older brother took turns reading the book. Everyone particularly enjoyed making the animal sounds sprinkled throughout the story.

Jenny modeled how to reinforce information presented in the story. As the ‘littles’ (as she called them) moved along the trail, she reminded them to look for animal tracks and burrow entrances (i.e. holes) in the snow, just like the ones shown in the story.

Jenny encouraged everyone to put on their “deer ears,” cupping hands around ears to hear more like these woodland creatures. “Can you hear better with deer ears?” she asked? “Yes!” “What can you hear now that you couldn’t before?” “The river!” a four-year-old boy exclaimed, then sprinted down the trail to find it.

After finishing the book, the group gathered at Barnes Leap and marveled at the rushing Cathance River which was wild from recent precipitation. The return route via the Cathance River Trail and a “secret” shortcut trail was more rugged. The children delighted in negotiating tree roots and rocks as they scouted for “ice pancakes” in the river and “Wow’ed!” over bright orange jelly fungus.

The outing ended with a warm up in the Ecology Center and cocoa. Several families read more winter-themed, nature books from the Ecology Center library, while others played with animal puppets.

The takeaway from this event is that children love to be outdoors in any season. While they may be shy at first, they quickly revel in the joy of discovery with their peers. The natural world is the perfect environment for young, developing brains. Many believe unstructured play outdoors promotes strength, creativity, imagination, exploration, risk management, self-confidence, and learning. Ironically, research shows that free time outdoors helps children learn to focus. And, time in nature reduces stress.

CREA will be hosting guided StoryWalks for preschoolers seasonally, whenever a new book is installed on the storyboards. Look for it on the Events page on the CREA website: The StoryWalk is open to the public year-round at the Cathance River Nature Preserve. Naturalists of all ages are welcome, dusk to dawn, to enjoy the walk. The StoryWalk® can be found on the Barnes Leap Trail just past the CREA Ecology Center.

CREA’s Ecology Center is also open every Sunday, year-round, from 12-2 pm if you’d like to combine a visit with your StoryWalk adventure.

Read the entire story at the Portland Press Herald