Connecting the Youngest Generations to the Natural World

/ / Education

By Mike Bienkowski

With snow and subzero temperatures and feet of snow one week, then warm sun followed by rain and thunderstorms and t-shirt weather the next, it seems like the weather is very confused about what season it is.  Regardless of the wild weather, the days will grow longer, the sun stronger, the bears will start to stir and the birds will break into song.

Spring is a magical time to spend long afternoons rambling in the outdoors, reconnecting with the rhythms of nature and delighting in the almost daily changes as flowers pop, birds return, and animals big and small come out of dormancy.  Anyone who has ever spent time with young children outdoors knows that they are perfectly equipped to find joy in the small details of a landscape returning to life.  Hiking with kids, you stop a lot, and inevitably notice things you never would have otherwise.  Kids adventure outdoors much the way they live–occupied with the present moment and fully enraptured by their immediate surroundings.

While many Durangatangs associate SJMA with dreamy alpine Instagram photos, our information booth at the Ice Lakes trail, or encountering Forest Ambassadors in the Weminuche, you may not know that we are also a state-licensed childcare provider perfectly equipped to help children explore the way they do best–up close with the landscape and immersed the the plethora of beauty at eye and ground level.  Come April, SJMA will once again be offering after-school enrichment for elementary students.  These programs, called the San Juan Science Ramblers, take science education into the forest, where students learn about nature and ecology by getting their hands–and hiking shoes–dirty.

With experienced educators as guides, kids explore topics specific to place and season, in ways that can only be done on the land.  From wildflowers to edible plants, winter survival to predator-prey adaptations, actual experience in the field makes for memorable learning while developing observation and critical thinking skills, all in a context of fresh air, healthy movement, and much-needed safe social interaction.  Thanks to a partnership with the San Juan National Forest, all of these programs take place on local public lands, accessible within fifteen minutes of town.

As a kick-off to after-school enrichment, SJMA is also offering a weeklong Spring Break Camp the week of March 15th – 19th.  From exploring desert ecology and archaeology at Sand Canyon, to learning about indigenous culture at the Southern Ute Cultural Center, investigating snow science and winter ecology and building snow caves at Molas Pass, and taking on some of the most rewarding hikes right in our backyard, this camp will incorporate hands-on learning into the ultimate Durango stay-cation for youths aged 6 – 11.

It is SJMA’s mission to empower people to explore, learn, and protect the amazing public lands in our backyard.  We believe that in connecting the youngest generations to the natural world and helping them fall in love with it, ethics of conservation and stewardship will inevitably be woven into our future.  For more information on camps or to register, visit or contact Education Director Adriana Stimax at

Mike Bienkowski is a former secondary science teacher and educator with Durango Nature Studies who now works for San Juan Mountains Association as the curriculum coordinator for education programs.