By Karen Houston, Program Coordinator

Nature has no labels. Nature demands your attention to the slow and subtle details of life. It removes you from the hectic, overstimulating chaos of daily life, and delivers you to a slower, rhythmic hum where your thoughts slow and your body relaxes. I only learned the importance of this lesson in the past five years; ironic, as I was a park ranger for 13 years before joining FACT Oregon as a program coordinator. I spent nearly all day, every day, outside: along ocean beaches, deep in the forest, hiking, and camping.

However, because I myself don’t experience disability, I never realized how accepting and inclusive the natural world was until I experienced it through a child’s eyes.  Sam is my six-year-old son, and he experiences autism. Sam has difficulty engaging in social play, and has limited verbal communication. Like many people with autism, his repetitive behaviors and sensory processing disorder are distracting for us and especially for him.  More important for you to know about Sam, though, is that he is just a boy who loves to be outside. He loves to be dirty, fresh air, rain or shine, maple tree seeds, wind, and turning his beautiful face up to the sun and smiling with his whole heart.

boy lifting his blue shirt and touching his tummy to the tree's barkElla, my nine-year-old, and my son have always spent a great deal of time outdoors since they were born. Having two park rangers for parents, we didn’t leave them much choice! We took them camping and hiking as infants. It wasn’t until Sam was diagnosed at age two that I began to notice something very interesting about him when he was outside: He becomes calmer, and his repetitive behaviors slow.  His eye contact increases. He uses more verbal language. He is so very happy! He notices every tiny detail, and forces me to slow down and see the beauty through his eyes. Like the shadows of leaves dancing in the breeze, or the way moss feels under my bare feet. Or my favorite: lifting up our shirts so we can feel the bark of different tree species on our tummies.

The world slows down for Sam in nature. The sensory overload decreases, and suddenly, things begin to make sense because they move at a pace that isn’t rushed, loud, artificial, or frantic.  Sam has taught me that nature is one of his favorite places to be. Sam just gets to be Sam: no goals and objectives, no right or wrong – just a boy in nature.  Nature doesn’t care if you have a label. In fact, she’d prefer you leave it at home!boy sitting on a big log in the forest looking up at the sky

It wasn’t until after my years as a park ranger that I noticed how even going to a neighborhood park or in our backyard could reset Sam’s general sense of well-being. We began to visit more parks, fitting in a quick afternoon hike or playground visit after school or in between indoor activities and errands. I noticed the difference between the days when we get outdoors and days we did not.

I began working for FACT Oregon in November 2016, and was excited to be assigned community projects and partnerships that had a recreational focus. With my years of parks experience and Sam’s lessons, I am excited to connect families with Oregon’s beautiful outdoors. There are many reasons families don’t feel comfortable visiting natural spaces. Concerns regarding safety, accessibility, and inclusion abound and are often valid. I am working hard with several partners on making new playground, natural spaces, and outdoor recreation opportunities available to families so they try some outdoor experiences in a safe and supportive environment.

One of those opportunities has been with Metro’s Connect with Nature project. I sent out surveys asking families to give their input regarding their current outdoor experiences, and where they’d like to see improvements. If you haven’t had a chance to give your input, please share your thoughts here. We need your valuable insight to ensure that new natural areas are not only accessible, but inclusive for all children. Metro is also looking for families to share their stories of how they connect with nature and why it matters to them. Please let me know if you are interested in participating in Metro’s story corner project.

Another project I am working on is with Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. FACT Oregon is working in partnership to bring inclusive day use and overnight experiences to families this summer – stay tuned! Let’s leave the labels at home, and discover new experiences that our children can take with them far into the future.

As a former park ranger, Karen Houston created a training manual and resource guide for Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department called Creating Memorable Oregon State Park Experiences For Families with Children Experiencing Disability.