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Growing Up Wild in the Badger State

When Hannah Spaul was growing up, her parents took the family camping, picnicking, hiking, ice skating and swimming.

“My dad was all about learning skills like using a compass or reading a map and really being an active participant outdoors,” Hannah recalled.

Today Hannah oversees management of Nature Conservancy properties in Wisconsin. She and her husband, Mike Engel, who is a private lands biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are sharing their love of nature and the outdoors with their son Oscar. We caught up with Hannah recently to learn more about how her family spends time together outdoors.

What do you do at The Nature Conservancy and what do you love most about your job?

Hannah Spaul:

I direct Wisconsin’s land management program, which encompasses about 26,000 acres around the state. Depending on the season, Conservancy staff and volunteers are burning prairies, removing garlic mustard and other invasive species, planting trees, surveying for rare plants or animals, and working on many other tasks. My favorite part of the job is interacting with our volunteers. They really love the places we are protecting and make it fun even when the work is difficult, dirty and seemingly insurmountable.

Tell us about your son Oscar and his favorite things to do outdoors.

Hannah Spaul:

Oscar is six years old and in kindergarten. Mike and I love spending time outdoors and have taken Oscar along pretty much since he was born. He was 3 months old on his first camping trip. And he was canoeing before he could walk; one of us would hold him while the other paddled. Today he loves swimming, snorkeling, canoeing, fishing and taking short hikes. He digs in the dirt, collects rocks and loves bugs.

How do you make being outdoors fun for Oscar?

Hannah Spaul:

Oscar wants to do everything we do, so we make sure he has his own equipment, but in his size. He has a small paddle, fishing pole and net, headlamp and walking stick. We also change things up to keep him interested, so we might start a scavenger hunt while on a hike or stop for snacks by the lake. And we give him as much control over what he wants to do as we can. Instead of moving at our desired pace, we slow things down and let him appreciate that cool rock or shell he just found.

A new survey reveals parents around the world are concerned children are not spending enough time outdoors. What is your reaction to that?

Hannah Spaul:

I don’t think it’s just an issue for children. People are not spending much time outdoors, which means they’re not taking their children outside either. Some children I know are afraid to go out in nature because they have no experience with it. But most children enjoy spending time outdoors when it’s well-facilitated and they have the companions and the supplies they need to be comfortable.

Where do you, Mike and Oscar spend time outdoors?

Hannah Spaul:

Some of our favorite places are Nature Conservancy preserves. Oscar’s favorite is Lulu Lake Preserve in southeast Wisconsin. When we take him canoeing there, he hops off the side of the canoe with his life jacket on and his snorkel set. He’ll swim around looking at fish until he’s blue and we tell him it’s time to get back in the boat. He also likes Mink River Preserve in Door County where he invented the “troll game.” He runs ahead and hides behind a tree. Then when the adults get close, the “troll” jumps out and scares us. Once he caught a leech in his net at Mink River, and that was endless fun. It’s fun for us too because when we’re with Oscar, we see these places with new eyes.

Why is it important to you and Mike that Oscar grows up connected to nature?

Hannah Spaul:

It’s healthy, and it encourages independent learning and problem-solving. It’s also a great way to unplug and spend time with other people from family and friends to park rangers and naturalists. Nature adventures and discovery are a big part of our lives, and it’s a gift we want to give to Oscar.

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