Get Outside

Growing Up Wild

For many of our Conservancy staff members, nature isn't just a profession, it's a passion that they want to share with their children. Pennsylvania's Mike Eckley believes that some of life's most valuable lessons are learned in a forested classroom.

What do you do for The Nature Conservancy?

Mike Eckley:

I’m the director of forest conservation for The Nature Conservancy’s Pennsylvania Chapter. I work with landowners on sustainable forest programs—like Working Woodlands —and help manage our preserve network in Pennsylvania: nearly 30 properties and 14,000 acres.

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

Mike Eckley:

As a parent of two youngsters (daughter age 8 and son age 3), I have noticed a profound difference in how kids are raised today compared to my upbringing. I grew up in a rural farming community in Central PA, where neighborhood kids gathered to play without parental supervision. Such freedom promoted creative ‘free play,’ which took place outside—often along creeks or within nearby forests. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of building camp sites along nearby stream banks, sneaking into a fenced reservoir to fish for trout, and swinging on grapevines to see who could gain the most altitude. Today, kids’ time is heavily monitored or worse yet—fully controlled by concerned parents. On a positive note: a tremendous movement has started to expose youth to the outdoors through special events and mentoring programs. These efforts are making a difference.

Why is it important to you that your children grow up connected to nature?

Mike Eckley:

I view exposing my children to the great outdoors and encouraging them to connect with nature in a free-spirited, meaningful manner as a critical element to preserving our family’s traditions. Some of life’s most valuable lessons can be taught or freely earned in a forested classroom.

How does spending time outdoors impact your children?

Mike Eckley:

My wife and I value the outdoors for stimulating our children’s minds through observation while also giving them a physical outlet. Nature is a vehicle for us to spend quality time together as a family while also serving as an ideal factory for teaching life skills.

Is there a specific Conservancy preserve you spend a lot of time on with your children?

Mike Eckley:

I’ve developed a great appreciation for the Woodbourne Forest Preserve in Susquehanna County.
Woodbourne supports a tremendous diversity of flora and fauna. A 6-mile network of hiking trails provides access to wetlands, meadows, a 100-acre old-growth white pine-hemlock forest, and large pond that offers great wildlife viewing opportunities. It’s the ultimate playground to connect kids with nature. Unknown to most visitors is resident Preserve Naturalist, Dr. Jerry Skinner, a trained biologist and avid birder, who teaches at nearby Keystone College. Dr. Skinner offers a number of specialized educational programs at the preserve each year.

Tell us about your experiences at Woodbourne with your children, any favorite activities or memories?

Mike Eckley:

Our most memorable visit to Woodbourne was while on a family vacation last summer. We spent a morning with Dr. Skinner, the resident Preserve Naturalist, who gave the kids an outdoor lesson about the birds, moths, and butterflies of Woodbourne. With the nesting and breeding season at its peak, the kids visited nearby bird houses complete with blue bird hatchlings. Later, they explored the old growth forest on their own terms—including an exhilarating experience crossing a swampy section of land on a catwalk. The hemlocks were a highlight of the day—the entire family joined hands in an effort to surround these medieval looking trees. The day was an epic adventure for our entire family.


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