Katie Roberts, the great outdoors and the wonder of nature

Katie Roberts, the great outdoors and the wonder of nature

Katie Roberts says children learn valuable lessons, find inspiration, and connect with the environment and their peers at Youth Opportunities Unlimited in New Bedford’s far South End.

Since 2004, YOU has given city schoolkids an outlet for their energy, imagination, and curiosity. The Victory Park Warming House on Brock Avenue is a kids’ clubhouse filled with aquariums, a bearded dragon dubbed Freya, and Poppy, a cuddly dwarf rabbit. A taxidermied osprey with an impressive wingspan soars across one wall. Bicycles rehabbed in the Community Bike Shop hang overhead, and there’s a kitchen where budding chefs can explore cooking. Even without youngsters present, a current of energy seems to run through the place.

Roberts, who now lives in New Bedford, grew up in Taunton — a city that, like New Bedford, still has pockets of nature to explore.

Before joining YOU, she was education coordinator at Soule Homestead Education Center in Middleboro, which does farm and nature-based education. A bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and a master’s in environmental education from Lesley University in Cambridge equipped her for her career.

YOU, under the leadership of Executive Director Bernadette Souza, works with youth ages 9 to 14 in partnership with New Bedford’s 21st Century Afterschool programs at Jacobs, Parker, and Gomes elementary schools (and Roosevelt Middle School last autumn) as well as Our Sisters’ School and Nativity Prep. Twelve to 14 kids participate in programs each day; about 70 are served each week.

On Nov. 2, at its annual meeting in Boston, Mass Audubon honored Roberts as one of four Conservation Teachers of the Year. Educators are chosen “for their commitment to nature-based education and for helping their students forge meaningful and lasting connections with the natural world.”

In nominating Roberts, Carrie Hawthorne, lead education coordinator for Mass Audubon Southeast Sanctuaries, said she brings “a keen eye for safety, empathy, fun, and learning” to her role, making kids “feel comfortable trying new things like riding a bike, or eating something they grew out of the garden, or holding a crab. … She encompasses everything that an informal educator should be!”

In this conversation with The New Bedford Light, Roberts explains how she helps city youth experience the wonder of nature as she did as a child (and continues to as an adult) and to foster enriching experiences and relationships.

Youth Opportunities Unlimited Program Operations Director Katie Roberts with her Conservation Teacher of the Year plaque. Credit: Joanna McQuillan Weeks / The New Bedford Light

New Bedford Light: What put you on the path to being a nature education specialist?

Katie Roberts: I think for me, it was those core memories of playing outside as a child … riding my bike with my friends, and family camping adventures. Exploring in the woods when I was a kid … You know, Taunton is more of an urban environment, but we were finding a lot of little nature places, little nooks and crannies like there are around here, those little special places that are really important to kids, the forts and all those things that we built.

I think that was my first introduction of learning that about myself — that I love being outside and I love to explore. I love animals and nature, and ever since I was little, I always wanted to work in the outdoors.

I had actually started my career doing more of the hard sciences, the conservation work. (Then) I started working with youth and I caught that bug of wanting to explore nature with them. I just fell in love with connecting with kids outdoors and helping them create those memories that I had as a child. I think that is an extremely important piece of the work that I do … just getting kids outside and creating those memories and connections.

NBL: What does your position as program operations director for Youth Opportunities Unlimited encompass?

KR: I manage and oversee all of the programming that we do with our youth and am in charge of developing the curriculum part of things, overseeing the direction that we want to go, and the growth where we want to move in those directions, and supporting after-school programming. I’m also currently overseeing our expansion into the world of daytime programming — school field trips and developing that aspect of things — and then also managing grants that come in, overseeing the financial, the budgets, and things like that.

NBL: What kinds of nature-based activities do you do with the youngsters?

KR: It’s all year long, September all the way through the summer; all of our programming incorporates explorations with nature. I like to look at it not as learning about nature, but learning with nature, and that’s really an immersive experience. Whether it’s using our bikes to get us to our destination — we get on a bike and we ride — we have West Beach, we have East Beach. We have the pond right over here. We have the garden. So it’s kind of just digging in and getting our hands dirty … and (having) little mini-adventures. We find our learning within those explorations.

We might be talking about erosion, or it might be something that the kids notice — a certain rock or a certain creature they find on the beach, or whatever that is … we try to turn that into a learning experience for them.

Everything is a learning experience, even just riding a bike and the confidence that you’re gaining and teaching your body how to move in a certain way or balancing and things like that, as well as the social (aspect). Nature allows for that environment to be created where you’re learning … about yourself, you’re learning about nature, you’re learning about all those things, when you’re exploring.

I think that’s why it’s an amazing classroom to have, the outdoors — because you can learn about so many different facets, not just about science.

NBL: Research has shown that children do better physically and emotionally when they spend time outdoors. It reduces their stress and improves their attention skills. Do you see evidence of that in the YOU participants?

KR: Absolutely. … Time outdoors, in nature, (provides) a combination of being physically more active and a release of endorphins that’s good for your mind. It’s that social-emotional piece, that feeling of connectedness being outdoors, and having those special memories that are being created, and creating that sense of belonging. I think that’s what nature provides, as well as the academic learning benefits of being outdoors in nature. For many kids, I feel like those outdoor spaces are much quieter and calmer.

It provides opportunities to move your body and to explore with all of your senses, and I think for some kids, that’s the best way that they learn. … I think for me, that moment of seeing a child, whether they’re struggling to learn how to bike, finally get that confidence and that skill level to be able to ride a bike, or that sense of wonder and awe at finding a really cool shell on the beach, or making a connection to a friend — I think those are the joyous moments that we can track as being social-emotional growth across the board. …

Being outdoors in nature is … embedded in all of our programming — also our gardening and the ability for us to teach kids where their food comes from. And then they help prepare it, and we have a family-style meal together. So I feel that’s a big part of the program that, although it’s not specifically a nature connection, it’s still that connection to the outdoors, the growing of the food, of sharing it together, and that family-style meal. A lot of the kids mention food as being part of their favorite memories.

So coming together and sharing that, whether it’s learning how to plant the seed or watering it, caring for it, or cutting the vegetables, preparing it, and then sharing it with their friends and staff members I think is what’s important.

NBL: What do you do with a flock of energetic kids when it’s rainy?

KR: That’s a great question. In the summer, again, the bike-riding is a big component of our programming. On the days that we can’t ride, if the road conditions aren’t safe, we have some experiences that we create inside and sometimes we still go outside, we might just not ride a bike, especially in the summertime if it’s nice and warm. …

Actually we had a very mild winter, so we were able to get outside, but (Winter INdoor Discoveries, WIND) is a program where we have more time indoors. So again, (there’s) hands-on engagement, and we secretly work in some physical activity as well. We did a whole session about wind power and wind energy, and we actually talked a lot about pedal power. So the kids got on the bike and they were pedaling and we had it hooked up to this board with different light bulbs, and they had to try to pedal fast enough to create enough energy to light the bulbs.

We’ve done woodworking, bike repair … We’ve also done programs where we partnered with 3rd EyE (Unlimited) and we’ve done hip hop dance. Over February vacation we had some drumming workshops and dancers come in. So again, it’s getting that body movement and a way to harness that energy, and sometimes it looks like creativity.

Youth Opportunities Unlimited Program Operations Director Katie Roberts says it’s “an amazing classroom to have, the outdoors — because you can learn about so many different facets, not just about science.” Credit: Joanna McQuillan Weeks / The New Bedford Light

NBL: Do you see lingering effects from the disruption of children’s lives caused by COVID?

KR: We’re still seeing the effects. … even now, I think, across the board we’re seeing kids really feeling the need to feel connected. A lot of them are still feeling quite isolated. So that’s why that focus on the relationship-building with staff, with other kids, having experiences around connecting to each other, but also having experiences that connect us to places, in the different kind of magical places that exist around here — that part is very, very important. When kids feel connected and they have that sense of belonging, they don’t feel so isolated. And I think that’s the way for us to move beyond that trauma of what families have experienced during COVID, of that isolation, of just having those opportunities to bring people together and feel connected.

NBL: The honor of being named by Mass Audubon as one of four Conservation Teachers of the Year comes with a $1,000 award to apply to your program. How are you going to use that?

KR: We’re working on putting together our supplies for our ponding and our butterfly projects that we’re working on … nets and those kinds of supplies. It’s actually one of the kids’ favorite experiences … when they put on the waders. Our nets need to be upgraded. I was very happy to receive that award … whether it’s fall, spring, summer, we can use those supplies to support all of our programming. …

With the kids, what we do (in the pond) is collect samples to see what kind of macroinvertebrates are there, damselfly larva and things like that … teaching the kids that whatever is in the pond highlights the health of the pond. So there’s certain key species that we can determine, “This shows us what good water quality is.”

NBL: What do you treasure most about the natural world?

KR: Especially from when I was young, those “Aha!” moments, those moments where I found a small treasure — a periwinkle, or a piece of seaglass, or the most perfect stone. Finding those treasures and finding those special spaces, whether it’s a fort I built with my friends, or a place that I would ride to that only I knew about, those secret, special places that only I and maybe a few of my closest friends knew about, that sense of adventure and discovery — those are my favorite parts of being in nature, as well as the stillness and the quiet.”

Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Registration is underway for YOU’s summer program, Exploring Your Environment. Visit younb.org for details.

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