By Hilary Felix

Before I began my job at the Santa Fe Ranch, I met Tony Sedgwick at the Santa Cruz Fair where he, his son Antony, and manager Dean Fish were exhibiting farm animals for local youth. As we spoke, Tony told me about Las Lagunas de Anza. He described a natural wetlands in Nogales which the ranch had restored and preserved and encouraged me to visit.

A day later my curiosity led my children and I to Las Lagunas for the first time. Upon arrival, I marveled at how I had driven by this place so many times and not noticed it. Hidden between the streets, stores and warehouses, there were willows, mesquite and cottonwoods, and all manner of wildlife supported by the marsh below. We heard the deep croaks of bullfrogs, the rustling of lizards, and even a bird that sounded like a monkey that I later learned was the call of a lovesick roadrunner. I felt like Mary Lennox stepping into the Secret Garden and every direction I turned, there was more beauty to see.

Since that day, we’ve been back to these wetlands more times than I can count. My kids spend their time pretending to fish on the floating dock, running through the giant reeds, or begging me to be the troll that lives under the bridge. I don’t need to plan much as the wetlands provide everything to capture their imaginations and stimulate their brains. Not only do they engage in this imaginary play that is so important to growing minds, I also appreciate many of the other values and skills they learn when they are outdoors.

In my experience, time spent in nature provides a number of important learning opportunities.

  1. How to handle challenges. The steps back to the parking lot may be steep when you are two feet tall but the feeling of inner pride for a toddler when they can say “I did it!” makes up for it and then some.
  2. How to problem solve. It may seem like no big deal but when there is a small branch obstructing the children’s path, or another problem for them to solve, I watch the kids figuring out what to do and feel they are working on a vital life skill.
  3. The joy of making discoveries. Going outdoors with no learning agenda other than to be in nature can often lead to the type of open mind that is ready to learn new things. I find when I have something specific planned to teach my kids, it’s harder to support the discoveries that they are making themselves. Outdoors this happens less. Nature is both the classroom and the teacher.
  4. How to use your imagination and make your own fun. Outside, a stick can be a sword, a wand, a digging instrument, a drawing utensil or a fishing rod depending on what the kids decide. I could go to the store and buy a separate toy that represents each of these activities or I could take them outside and watch them pick up a stick, using their minds to create the rest. Of course simply buying a toy (and we have lots of them) doesn’t mean anything is wrong, but I try not to forget the immense value that nature already provides for free.
  5. Respecting nature and wildlife. They are learning the philosophy of “leave no trace” and soon I hope to bring bags and let them pack out a few plastic bottles or other litter we may find. I hope they can experience even as children the impact someone can have when they leave a place better than they found it.
  6. Resilience. There are a number of uncomfortable elements in nature that don’t present themselves in more sterile environments. The kids trip, fall, scrape themselves, feel the dirt in their shoes, get too hot or cold, and whatever else comes their way. And they deal with it, sometimes more gracefully than I do and sometimes less, sometimes on their own and sometimes with help. But they go back to it again the next day with a little more resilience and a little more knowledge about themselves and their abilities.

These are skills I hope my children will find useful not just in the classroom when they tackle the problems on a worksheet, but also I hope they serve them well in their lives.

I’m so grateful that places like Las Lagunas exist, places where the children of our community can explore their connection to the natural world, make lasting memories and have fun being kids in the great outdoors.

Las Lagunas de Anza is considered the last remaining riparian marsh in the upper Santa Cruz River watershed. To learn more about it you can go to laslagunas.org or simply go there and explore! It’s located across from Saint Andrews Church at 966 West Country Club Drive in Nogales.