Leslie Science & Nature Center: Adventures and Education in a Park in the City

By Lisa Gribowski-Smith

My kid is a dynamo at Minecraft. She can virtually engineer her way around fire and lava through complicated structures at rapid speed with pals twice her age. For fun she reads Minecraft manuals and watches advanced tutorials on YouTube. Learning how to master operations and obstacles built into the game gives her energy, increases happiness, and grounds her. Minecraft is bonding with her pals at school and a planned highlight on play dates. 

Elizabeth is a cerebral kid. There’s just no changing that. It’s how she arrived. At age eight, she is strong in math, skillful at chess, and reads complicated riddles for fun. Wordy, dense novels and sophisticated computer tasks are fun, creative outlets for her that inspire connection, confidence, and relaxation. Still, at the end of a rigorous school day, Elizabeth is the first kid to hit the playground running and the last one to leave. She unwinds under the sky skipping, jumping, and playing games with balls. Outside in nature and through frolic and play, Elizabeth quickly comes back to herself. 

My husband, Jeff, and I are no slouches about the literature on kids, electronics, and screentime. We know the debate and pay attention to the concerns. The balance we strike for our girl and our family works. There is abundant energy, happiness, harmony, and peace. Our girl is fully herself. Math scores keep going up, as does the fascination with critters, bugs, and spiders. This, for us, is the litmus test. Elizabeth’s relationship with the natural world remains solid and captivating. Our girl depends on the outdoors to lift her out of her head and ground her back into her body. Nature facilitates a mind-body connection that extends outside, from within herself. She simply lightens up, lets go, and loves more easily again with all her senses. 

In spite of the charmed balance we see in our girl, Jeff and I protect Elizabeth’s connection to nature with eagle eye attention. We prioritize experiences outside with insects, critters, and clouds and are continually seeking fun, new opportunities for her to discover the natural world in a style that suits her best. We understand that invariably the best way for us to bring our focus back to each other, our girl, and what matters to us as a family involves unplugging and recovering from the demands of daily living. One of the ways we do this best is by dropping everything and dashing to Leslie Science & Nature Center (LSNC) for earth-sky refreshment. 
Located next to the Leslie Park Golf Course on Traver Road in Ann Arbor, LSNC is an expansive park situated near downtown Ann Arbor. Visitors can come during daily staffed hours or whenever suits busy schedules between sunrise and sunset. Park admission is free. During business hours staff are available to point out gardens, trails, or what’s alive at the pond during any season. When the park is closed visitors can self-guide and explore on their own, much like they would at any city park. “When you come here on your own, it’s amazing!” beamed Etta Heisler, Camp and Public Programs Director. 
You get to go at your own pace using our new Apple app, visitor trail guides, or Google maps. You can hike along the trails with intention, learning names of species along the trails, or with leisure to simply see, smell, or hear whatever nature brings your way; a Cooper’s Hawk, a woody bear caterpillar, the screech of an owl at dusk, or a snake slithering across the trail. I always thought I was scared of snakes until I held one. So amazing! So unlike anything I had ever touched before! 

Self-guided exploration at our own pace was precisely the experience we were up for when we first discovered LSNC two summers ago. One Saturday afternoon, after an especially hectic week that included travel for work, nosebleeds, math camp, and late nights catching up on chores, we virtually landed in an online sanctuary promising to refresh and reboot our stressed out senses. Visually stunning and easy to navigate, Leslie’s website offers picturesque tours of happy trails traversed by families, children, and smiling staff. Photos of nature walks led by LSNC educators and camp educators show off cool, sustainable buildings, breathtaking butterflies, and birds of prey brought back to life from injury or illness.

If that’s not enough, stunning images of radiant green foliage throughout the website inspire further online investigation. You can uncover fifty acres of land with trails, a vernal pond (called Black Pond), permanent rapture enclosures for adopted birds of prey hurt in the wild, and a year-round critter house with insects, animals, and amphibians. There is also an impressive Natural Energy House built by DTE showcasing solar energy, recycled materials, and sustainable water conservation technologies. The staggering sum of all these bits described online is a happening park destination for self-guided exploration with or without a picnic, guidebook, and binoculars.

In 1986, Dr. and Mrs. Leslie left their land to the city of Ann Arbor to be a park for children. In 2007, it became a separate 501(c)3 nonprofit. 2016 marks its thirtieth year of running programs for kids and families, both on the grounds and remotely at schools and organizations. “The Center is a place of re-connecting with nature,” explained Executive Director Susan Westhoff. “It’s peaceful, surprising, and inspiring… providing opportunities to learn something new about nature and our relationship with it every single day. Once you learn about an organism’s role within the greater scheme of life, it becomes significant. You can no longer wish there were no more mosquitos, because without them, we would be lost,” she said.

Westhoff is sympathetic to the daily challenge of guiding a child’s eyes up and away from the pull of electronics and social media to the vibrant wonder of life all around. As a mother of two young children, she consciously strives to maintain Dr. and Mrs. Leslie’s original intention of connection, community, and fun through outdoor educational recreation for children. Camps and programs are designed and creatively implemented with the “bigger picture” in mind, inspiring participants to think about all living things and the value each living thing holds. 

“Every year we serve over 60,000 people both on and offsite. Programs evolve around the interests of our community and our staff, so every year holds unique, new programs both for us and the audience,” explained Westhoff. “LSNC hires diverse staff who are enthusiastic not just about the outdoors but also passing on the joy of having a personal experience in nature to both young and old.” 

Music, biology, ecology, education, park management, and environmental policy are just a few of the degrees LSNC educators hold. The common ground that glues staff together, however, is the unwavering conviction that within every person is a savvy naturalist that knows how to connect with nature from precisely the standpoint that suits him or her best. 

For many elementary kids, a guided trail walk on a school field trip is their first ever walk in nature. Often the walk begins with identifying a host of phobias, fears, and even terrors created by creepy media misrepresentations of nature gone stark-raving mad, on a mission to attack and destroy humanity. Staffers told me that kids often bring up gushes of blood, horrible suffering, and extreme panic as ideas about nature. The popular media script also includes incompetent trail guides and camp counselors who get lost, killed, or eaten. Kids are always abandoned by adults, preyed upon by nature for sport. 

LSNC Educator Cathy Dyer guides urban kids back to the facts about nature with constant reassurance and inquiry. 

I tell kids I know what I’m doing, that I’ve walked these trails many times before with other groups just like themselves. I describe the cool stuff they can expect to see and smell and feel. I explain how it’s ok to be afraid and then shift the focus to looking at the facts in front of us, whatever they might be. For example, if it’s a rabbit, we see how it’s soft and cute, not scary with fangs for biting. Together we practice curiosity by saying “hey, that’s interesting!” instead of “ew!” or “yuk!” — and answer questions about what we see together. 

Embracing curiosity instead of fear helps kids discover self-confidence and assurance that they can overcome fears with facts. “This strategy helped me personally,” added Dyer. “I was that kid who wouldn’t touch images of bugs in a picture book. Now I hold them, feed them, and show them to others.” By engaging with the world around them (all starting on a nature walk!), kids gain a sense of pride in themselves. This translates into resilience for whatever difficult feelings or circumstances come up for them everyday in both urban and natural settings. Scary turns to sweet, crazy turns to calm, and monsters become myths. Kids remember what they accomplished. Their learning becomes salient. “Hey, I did that difficult walk! I can do this difficult thing too!” 

Dyer’s fun, practical approach to making friends with nature is an effective teaching technique to help children tap into the “naturalist” within. When classmates trek a trail together, they become budding naturalists on assignment and nature becomes a science lab to investigate. LSNC Educator Alex Burgon-Tower described the term naturalist as:
A person who takes a scientific view of nature and has an extreme curiosity of all things natural and will collect, observe, hypothesize, and test until nearly a complete understanding is acquired. Naturalists are scientists driven toward, inspired by, and dedicated to the natural world. At LSNC we certainly appreciate naturalists and will encourage budding scientists, but it is not our mission to turn everyone who visits into a naturalist. What we do is inspire and foster the desire to discover or re-discover the natural world.

Leslie’s inclusive understanding of “naturalist” was exactly the transformative power Camp and Public Programs Director Etta Heisler needed to discover her “knack” for the environment. After her freshman year at college, at the encouragement of her mom, Heisler took on what she described as her ultimate challenge. An “indoor kid” with a background in the arts, she became a summer camp counselor who was required to use science as a means to explore nature. While she had attended summer camps since she was a kid, and had worked as a summer camp counselor, guiding kiddies to connect with life outside using science was a stretch to say the least. To add further pull to stretch, Heisler came to LSNC with a perceived, closet handicap. She perceived herself as being mediocre at science. In eighth grade, Heisler was discouraged from enrolling in advanced science for high school to maintain a strong grade point average. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get good grades to get into college and I really wanted to go to college,” she said. 

At LSNC however, with the supportive context of enthusiastic staff and curious children from all walks of life, Heisler re-discovered her self-confidence. Her natural “knack” for the environment turned to passion fueling her professional mission: 

I create fun programs to facilitate connection to nature, animals, and each other. We learn so much about nature through the senses of each other, since we each bring a different history and experience to every context. What I see or smell or want to learn more about is influenced by what you notice. Our individual experience becomes a shared experience and we feel connected, something we all desire.

Connection is second nature to Heisler. One of six children, and auntie to nine nephews and nieces, lifelong relationships are the means by which Heisler experiences “the bigger picture” and guides others to do the same. Close encounters with the natural world help people of any age develop empathy and context beyond themselves. The scope of living gets bigger and the fact that we have an impact can’t easily be forgotten. Heisler added, “When classes, camp groups, and families share the experience of discovery together, they not only gain appreciation and respect for the natural world but they also learn new things about one another. These discoveries strengthen their relationships with each other.” 

Leslie Science & Nature Center By The Numbers

A Broad-reaching Program
40,151 kids and 23,861 adults visited LSNC
338 school visits reached 23,293 kids and 9,213 adults
827 kids attended summer camps
338 kids attended camps during school breaks
92 birthday parties were celebrated onsite

A Beautiful Location
16 acres of Leslie Science Center city park
34 acres of Black Pond Woods 

A City Community Partnership
1986: Leslie Science Center founded by the City of Ann Arbor and the community
2007: Leslie Science & Nature Center became a separate nonprofit
$730,000: annual budget

Who Makes It Happen?
5 full-time staff
8 part-time staff, plus many more during summer camps
19 recurring volunteers
8 interns, 26 high school summer camp volunteers
100s of one-time volunteers for events and workdays
6,692 hours volunteered last year

Whooo else?
2 owl ambassadors traveled to education programs in the community
286 programs featured the male Barred Owl
208 programs featured the male American Kestrel 

Facts based on 2015. For more fun facts, visit lesliesnc.org.

To learn more about the park in the city, scholarship programs, or how LSNC brings nature to urban schools and organizations, visit: www.lesliesnc.org.

Posted on April 29, 2016 .