Nature Kids/Jovenes de la Naturaleza Lafayette: Nature Experiences at Community Scale

    Mission statement 

    Nature Kids/Jovenes de la Naturaleza Lafayette (NKJN) is a 5-year, $10-million, 27-organization collective impact project led by Thorne Nature Experience. The mission of the project is to change the lives of underserved Lafayette youth through connection to nature and the outdoors, and simultaneously change the field of environmental education (EE).

    Changing Lives: Boulder County is world-renowned for its mountains, trails, and open spaces. Yet, so many of the community’s youth, specifically those from low-income and Latino families, face barriers to accessing these resources. NKJN helps underserved Lafayette youth build a connection to nature and the outdoors, enabling the multitude of benefits (conservation, education, health and wellness, social justice, and youth development) afforded through that connection.

    Changing the Field: Most EE and outdoor recreation programs for underserved youth operate in silos or are small in scale, limiting their impact and benefits for youth. NKJN demonstrates a replicable model for high-impact, comprehensive, community-scale nature/outdoor programming.

    Core focus area 

    NKJN seeks to achieve its mission through three interrelated activities:

    1. Offering pre-k to high school, backyard to back-country, and family integrated EE and outdoor recreation programming.
    2. Capital construction projects that ensure all Lafayette youth live within a safe 10-minute walk to nature.
    3. A rigorous evaluation program and the dissemination of successes and lessons learned.

    NKJN’s 27 collaborating organizations include EE nonprofits, social service organizations, schools, and public land managers. Collaborators deliver 82 separate programming components to be carried out over 5 years, and 6 capital construction projects to build new parks, trails, and recreational amenities. Programming includes 100,000+ participant hours annually through:

    • In-school opportunities and field trips for elementary school age youth;
    • For-credit academic classes, after school clubs and paid employment opportunities at the middle and high school grade levels;
    • Summer camps; and
    • A progression of family nature experiences that include day-long and overnight trips to hike, camp, and participate in the outdoor recreation activities.

    The capital construction projects will bring nature to the Alicia Sanchez Elementary and Escuela Bilingüe Pioneer schoolyards, create parks along the Coal Creek Trail Corridor, and create linkages between low-income neighborhoods and parks and open spaces through new trails, bike-lanes, and pedestrian street crossings and widened sidewalks.

    Beyond the size and scope of NKJN, community engagement and the scaffolding of programming are additional attributes that make NKJN unique in comparison to other efforts to engage underserved youth in nature/outdoor programming.

    Community Engagement
    In 2016, low-income and Latino residents from Lafayette participated in a year-long, $200,000+ planning effort led by Thorne to help design NKJN. 200 children, youth, and adults, 80% of whom are Latino, helped NKJN collaborators understand the barriers to connecting with nature and shared ideas for removing these barriers. Elementary school-age youth helped to design nature play areas for their schools and communities. Middle and high school students expressed interest in for-credit classes and professional development opportunities, including paid jobs. Parents advised on where their kids could not safely cross streets to access a park, and explained the barriers that kept them and their families from recreating outdoors, including language barriers and access to gear. Gustavo Renya, Mayor Pro-Tem of Lafayette, has called the NKJN community engagement effort, “the most significant effort to date to reach out to Lafayette’s Latino community and learn about the needs of young Latinos and their families.”

    Low-income and Latino youth and their families remain in the driver seat of the NKJN program during program implementation by serving on NKJN’s Youth Advisory Board and the Promotores parent advisory and outreach group. Key to the success in engaging the community has been hiring NKJN liaisons from the community, prioritizing cultural competence, and respecting the needs of participants. Through communicating in Spanish first and offering child care, meals, and payment when required, NKJN has worked to remove barriers to participation in program leadership.

    Program Scaffolding
    Working with NKJN collaborators and leading EE researchers, including David Sobel, Thorne spearheaded an effort to develop a set of whole-child guidelines for EE to serve as the backbone for NKJN programming. The E-Guidelines, since adopted by both local school districts which combined serve more than 50,000 students, are the first set of guidelines in the nation to promote a whole-child approach to environmental education and suggest a scaffolded set of activities and learning concepts for students pre-K through high school. The whole-child approach involves engaging kids’ hands (service), heart (social emotional awareness), head (knowledge/academics), and feet (place-based learning). Each of these is critical to building nature connection, earth stewardship, and environmental literacy.

    NKJN is uniquely poised for success because its 82 programs were specifically designed to marry the outcomes of the community engagement efforts and the E-guidelines’ suggested programming. During an extensive RFP process, Thorne worked closely with all 27 organizations to ensure participating youth and their families grow and learn from experience to experience and program to program.