Nature walks are a great way to escape our concrete jungles and explore the natural world that literally surrounds us. You don’t need to be an expert to lead an informative and engaging nature walk in and around your park. All you need is some planning, your curiosity and an interest in the natural world to help your neighbourhood appreciate and often unexplored areas. Exploring nature in the park can also help community members see themselves as stewards of the park and surrounding area. Here’s how to lead a nature walk in and around your park.
In urban spaces, connecting with nature can be a real challenge. Planned nature walks are a great opportunity to get out into green spaces and explore the natural world surrounding us, even in big cities. Informed exposure to the natural world instils a sense of wonder and excitement in people of all ages. A nature walk is also a great way for a park group to engage the community in a new, interesting way. Developing a deeper understanding of your park builds a shared sense of ownership that can help community members see themselves as stewards of the park and surrounding area. You can tailor nature walks to perfectly suit any audience at just about any time of the year. The occasional immersion in our natural surroundings is great for the body, soul, and mind! Here are some tips for planning successful nature walks in your community:
Plan your walk for seasonality & participant suitabilityWho can enjoy a nature walk? Really, anyone from kindergarten students to gardeners to seniors can participate. Nature walks an be led by preschool teachers, Scouts and Guides leaders, naturalists, Master Gardeners, or just community members who have a sense of what's in their natural surroundings or have the curiosity to learn and explore. If you want to explore the natural world in your neighbourhood, you don't need an expert. Just about anyone can conduct a walk in nature with a bit of planning and knowledge. City parks, ravine systems or conservation areas are all perfect places for a jaunt in nature. However, it’s important to keep your participants in mind from a safety and accessibility point of view. Can seniors safely navigate the route in the snow? Is your route accessible for people with disabilities? Are preschoolers dressed for rain? Keep in mind that one of your goals should be to demonstrate that nature is safe and free of danger.
Prepare for your nature walkOur natural surroundings change week in, week out. Early spring sprouts turn into buds and flowers, which give way to thick foliage. Plan your walk according to what you’re able to point out and the weather and ground conditions. The kind of group that you are leading will dictate the route that you take, the kinds of things that you point out, as well as how you address the group. Children might be fascinated to understand what mushrooms do below the ground, for instance. Adults might be interested in medicinal plants and their benefits. If you have a group of new Canadians, you might want to enlist a local translator.It’s a good idea to do a practice walk or two in order to get comfortable with the route and get an idea of what you’re going to say. Factors to take into account in planning your nature walk can include:
- Route accessibility—be sure to pre-plan your route, looking for things like wet areas and obstructions.
- Weather—how should participants dress to remain comfortable for the walk’s duration.
- Duration—how much time can participants afford and will they get tired?
- Speed–Kids might prefer a faster pace to hold their attention, while seniors might enjoy stopping to linger on a particular subject.
- Start/finish location—is the place that you start and finish accessible and well-lit? And if the endpoint is different from the starting point, consider what transportation options are available
Enlist a specialistIf walk participants' level of knowledge is basic or varied, your own knowledge of nature will likely suffice. If you are doing a walk with bird watchers, gardeners, hunters or other specialized groups, you don’t have to rush to the library in order to become knowledgeable. For walks with a particular focus consider enlisting someone from aa naturalist group, a local horticultural society, a local conservation society, Master Gardener’s group, a parks employee or others from not-for-profit organizations in your community involved with parks and green spaces. You might be surprised how enthusiastic they will be to support you!
Build excitement & enjoymentFor a nature walk to be successful, participant enjoyment and fulfillment is key. There are many, many ways to build enjoyment, such as:
- Emphasize how much variety and life there is out there, using concrete examples: point out songbirds and squirrels, trees and lichen, shrubs, grass and moss, waterfowl and amphibians. What you don’t point out won’t necessarily get noticed.
- Encourage participants to use all their senses: open their eyes, nostrils, and ears to tune in to the natural world moving around them. Encourage them to look up, down, smell the breeze and point out birdsong and animal rustlings.
- Participation builds enjoyment, so do your best to encourage it! Ask questions, solicit answers, and encourage participants to point out anything and everything. Ask things like: Who knows what this is? Does anyone have an idea what this is/does? What kinds of mammals/birds/trees live around here?
- When you talk, keep information on different topics brief and digestible: trees, woodland plants, flowers.
- Try to tie what you say to something visual. Point things out as you speak. But don’t forget to illustrate unseen relationships, such as between trees and fungi.
- Instil a sense of timelessness. Point out that nature has always been here. Before the last ice age, this region was in fact tropical! Demonstrate some aboriginal use of the land, medicinal uses of plants, and how we have long worked in harmony with nature.
Bring props!A great way to build engagement is to bring along things that will enrich the experience. For a forest walk, you can distribute handfuls of sunflower seeds to attract chickadees, or bring along a set of magnifying glasses for kids to get a closer look at mushrooms. People love to participate. If you have a Walk Leader with knowledge and enthusiasm, you’re most of the way to a successful walk. Knowledge is good, but the ability to get participants excited is crucial.
Tips & Bonus Ideas
Pairing is caringKeep in mind that you can also pair a workshop with a nature walk. For example, preparing your garden for winter. After an instructional autumn workshop, take a walk through a park to show how gardeners have prepared flower beds for winter, or walk through the woods to show how the forest builds up a layer of compost for next season’s growth.
Following up a workshop with a nature walk is a great way to make knowledge come alive in the natural world.Jim Graham Master Gardener, Panorama Community Garden Group