Programs aim to introduce DFW kids to Mother Nature

GRANBURY -- Taking a break from gathering wood for a campfire, Bradi Ledbetter, 12, acknowledged that she doesn't like to spend much time outdoors unless it's winter.

And then only to jump on her trampoline.

But this week the sixth-grader at Fort Worth's St. Paul Lutheran School was excited -- and a wee bit nervous -- about her first camping trip.

"I'm terrified of snakes and bugs," Bradi said. "But my friends are all here, and it looks like fun."

Getting youngsters like Bradi energized about the outdoors is the goal of the education outreach program at Camp Fire USA's Camp El Tesoro, about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

In an effort to overcome what Richard Louv, in Last Child in the Woods, called nature-deficit disorder, students spend their time learning about fossils, wildflowers, insects and more and spend the nights in cabins.

"The outdoors really is a treasure for us to teach to children so that they can take care of nature in the future," said Susan Merrill, the camp's director of programs. "This year we have about tripled the number of schools coming out."

On Thursday morning, third-graders from Alvarado Elementary North were participating in a nature challenge. Team captain Kayli Nearn, 9, took her turn being blindfolded as she tried to sort fossil types by touch.

"It was hard being blindfolded, but you can tell them apart when you look at them," Kayli said. "The gastropods are twirly -- like a spiral."

Teacher Nicole Caruthers said Camp El Tesoro brings learning alive.

"It's like I have a whole different class," she said. "The way they communicate with each other and even the vocabulary they use is different."

The amount of time children spend outside has been at an all-time low in recent years, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report, which says kids spend on average about 50 hours a week using electronic media.

Last year, the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act was introduced in Congress to create a national strategy for getting children active. The bill remains in committee. On the upside, more children are slowly returning to outdoor activities, according to the Outdoor Foundation, which recently released parts of its new study. The full report -- based on interviews with about 38,000 children and adults nationwide -- is expected to be released next month.

Chris Fanning, the foundation's executive director, said every age group showed small increases in outdoor participation. For example, about 63 percent of those ages 6-12 participated in outdoor activity in 2011.

"That is really encouraging as we've seen double-digit declines in the past, but we seem to continue to be losing minority participation in the outdoors," Fanning said.

"That's a real concern as we see demographic shifts with those populations growing in numbers. There is a real nature-deficit disorder that is leading to things like childhood obesity and other childhood health issues."

To get inner-city children outdoors, the Friends of Tandy Hills Natural Area began a partnership with the Fort Worth school district last year. Students tour the 160-acre prairie in east Fort Worth with a master naturalist and learn about its history. Some teachers in the Meadowbrook area have been trained to give tours to classes.

Don Young, co-director of the Tandy Hills group, said some students told him they had never even been to a park.

"I've seen some direct changes since then," Young said. "I've seen many of the students come back on their own to give their parents a tour. ... We have a strong interest in raising children who will take responsibility for protecting green space in the future and in raising healthy kids who will be the leaders of tomorrow."

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700

Twitter: @fwstayala