Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Midwest Expo educates outdoors at Havenwoods Park.

Connecting Kids to the Outdoors: MOHEE Expands to Southeast Wisconsin

My grade school days may be decades in the past, but I still vividly recall the two occasions when my class was held outside at Dr. Beatrice O. Jones Elementary School in Racine. On those sunny late May days, my fellow students and I sat on the dandelion-studded grass and attempted reading assignments, quizzes, and history lessons. While unquestionably memorable, I am not convinced that this outdoor learning strategy was particularly effective – after all, I tended to spend more time observing dragonflies and ants than digesting the course material or engaging with my well-meaning teacher.

Years later, I attended the Midwest Outdoor Heritage Education Expo (MOHEE) in Poynette, where I witnessed 4th through 7th graders from across the region engaging in outdoor activities ranging from angler education and archery to wildlife identification, forestry, and outdoor safety. I was struck by how smart it was to bring school groups outside to learn, and I was not alone. After participating in the 2018 MOHEE at the MacKenzie Center, Andrea Gorniak of Marshall declared that it was her “favorite (day of school) ever.” As she petted the head of a sweet-tempered German shorthaired retriever at a dog training station at the event, she repeated “ever” for emphasis.

MOHEE was formed in 2014 after a previous youth education event in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, folded. Mark and Coni LaBarbera of Hazel Green, Wisconsin, and the Outdoor Heritage Education Center stepped in to fill the gap by creating MOHEE as a way to help connect kids to the outdoors. According to Mark LaBarbera, who has served as treasurer and vice-chairman of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and is currently the executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, MOHEE has successfully reached approximately 3,000 school kids, teachers, and chaperones through past events, all of which were held in Poynette.

This year, MOHEE is expanding to southeastern Wisconsin, in keeping with a long-term goal. On May 10, MOHEE will hold an event at Havenwoods State Forest in Milwaukee. “We are so happy to be able to bring MOHEE to Milwaukee,” said Ruth Ann Lee of Poynette, MOHEE executive director. “While we’ve had Milwaukee-area schools come to Poynette in years past, now it will be much more accessible to them.”

Educators and physicians alike extol the many advantages of connecting youth to the outdoors. In a 2023 article in Harvard Health Publishing, Dr. Claire McCarthy, a primary care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, notes that of the many changes in America in the past several decades, one of the most abrupt contrasts is the amount of time children spend outside. She lists six ways in which time spent outdoors benefits children, including improved vitamin D levels, exercise, executive function, taking risks, socialization, and appreciation of nature.

MOHEE events can benefit children along all of these dimensions. The Milwaukee event will be staffed with Department of Natural Resources professionals, including biologists and conservation wardens, as well as dozens of volunteers from conservation organizations. In addition to reading and listening, kids can participate in hands-on activities such as pond dipping to identify aquatic creatures.

MOHEE also enables students to explore mentored programs to develop outdoor skills that may lead to lifelong engagement with nature. They will have the chance to connect with educators, trained safety instructors, and other volunteer mentors who provide an enriching and engaging experience that connects students to Wisconsin’s natural resources, outdoor heritage, and lifelong skills.

Coincidentally, both LaBarbera and Lee grew up in West Allis, Wisconsin. LaBarbera graduated from West Allis Hale, and Lee is a graduate of cross-town Central. They know firsthand how challenging it can be for kids growing up in the state’s largest urban area to access the outdoors. “We’re really looking forward to having the buses flow in to Havenwoods with Milwaukee-area kids,” LaBarbera said.

The event is free and runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. So far, 850 students are registered for the May 10 Milwaukee event. It is not too late for school groups to get signed up and attend the Havenwoods MOHEE. Teachers, administrators, or parents who are interested in learning more or participating can contact Lee by email at ruthann@ohecyes.org to discuss possibilities. I think the odds are very good that Milwaukee-area students who attend MOHEE will regard it as one of the best days of the school year.

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About Casper Wong

Casper Wong is an experienced blogger who specializes in education and career development. His blog posts are a valuable resource for individuals seeking guidance on how to succeed in their academic and professional pursuits. With a wealth of knowledge and insights, Casper empowers his readers to reach their full potential and achieve their career goals. Follow him to discover the keys to lifelong learning and career success.

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