Thursday, April 5, 2012

Healing Our Children, Healing the Earth: Carolyn Walker

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell'd in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
--from "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," 
by William Wordsworth

There is a childhood epidemic sweeping our country today, infecting millions of our young people and compromising their prospects for the future and the future of the planet itself. It may already be too widespread to stop altogether, but there is reason to hope. For all across the nation, there are increasing numbers of valiant women and men who have committed themselves challenging this threat. The malady is called Nature Deficit Disorder, and one of its heroic enemies lives right here in our community: Carolyn Walker. Founder and director of Woodland Discovery, Carolyn works tirelessly to provide opportunities for children (and often their also-deficient parents) to get outdoors, to learn about the natural world, and to come to love and protect it.

For this second installment in the Sustainability Heroes Series*, I sat down with Carolyn Walker to talk about her work and what energizes her.

LBCF:  What led you to start Woodland Discovery?
Carolyn:  When I finished my education, I was planning on teaching high school business, since that is what I had been trained to do. But after five children, I realized that I really loved working with preschoolers. Around that time, I read somewhere the quotation, "As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines," and I realized that the best way to make an impact on someone's life is to influence them early.

So instead, I began teaching preschool. I spent many years doing that. I loved it; I loved working with the children there. But I kept seeing these kids come in who didn't want to go outside, didn't want to touch dirt, were afraid to try to climb a tree. I was also seeing preschool education becoming more and more academic--placing more emphasis on math and reading (often way too early) and devoting less and less time to play.

I saw parents accepting all this because they were afraid that if they didn't, their children would fall behind. They didn't realize that free play in nature is probably the best foundation for academic success. They didn't realize that the best way to keep kids safe in the long run is not to ban them from climbing trees or wading in water, but to teach them how to decide which risks to take so that they can learn to keep themselves safe without our intervention. I always told my own children and my preschoolers, "Sure, go ahead and climb the tree. But don't climb any higher than you want to fall." Then I would move closer to talk them through the process or catch the occasional misstep.

I actually just learned that insurance companies in Germany are starting to encourage schools to create more dangerous playgrounds. They report that they are tired of paying claims for so many adults who do not have any balance or "risk sense." What studies are beginning to show is that nature play has measurable positive outcomes in physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive ways--for both children and adults.

LBCF:  So what finally led you to start up this business?
Carolyn:  It's a long story. I was at a turning point in my career. I needed more autonomy in my work to do what was best for children, rather than cater to adults. And I wanted to do something that I felt passionate about. I had just finished reading Richard Louv's book (Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder**). I love children; I love being outdoors; I love to be creative; and I love to play. It all fit! And it would fulfill a unique need in our community. I thought that perhaps I could help parents get their children back into the woods. I realized that if they didn't have the time or the resources or a safe environment to let their kids play in nature, I could do that for them.

I spoke with some parents about it, and a lot of them said, "If you get something going, we'll send our kids to you." I first thought about starting a school, but the land purchase didn't work out. So then I decided that maybe I could make Woodland Discovery a mobile thing. I started offering classes at parks and on others' properties--moving from place to place as needed.

[Woodland Discovery now offers classes and camps year-round. My own daughters took a 6-week nature class with "Ms. Carolyn" last fall and had a wonderful experience. You can find their Woodland Discovery's 2012 summer camp schedule at]

LBCF:  Do you have a 5- or 10-year vision for how Woodland Discovery might look in the future?
Carolyn:  It would be wonderful if we could acquire some land of our own. This would allow me to do so much more than I am able to do right now. Before I even thought of providing nature studies, for instance, I thought a lot about playgrounds and how sterile and removed from nature most of them are. I think it would be great if we could have a "natural playground" with real stumps and trees that the kids could climb. We could have a children's garden and an outdoor classroom. It could be a prototype outdoor learning center, where teachers could come for ideas and then work on replicating similar playing and learning spaces where they work.

[Woodland Discovery is looking for a benefactor who could help them purchase a modest property on which to build such a playground and as a base site for their classes and camps.]

LCBF:  You are also on the board of World of Wonder (WOW), a collaboration with Davidson Lands Conservancy (DLC). Can you tell us a little bit about that group as well?
Carolyn:  WOW was the brainchild of Pam Dykstra, President of DLC, who realized that if we wanted people to become committed to conserving land, we needed to help the next generation value it. My contribution was to brainstorm activities that would be family/kid-friendly. So WOW was set up to provide nature education opportunities for children and their families. Our two main methods of educating these groups are through the booth we have at the Davidson Farmer's Market and the nature-education excursions we sponsor (all of which welcome children). We couldn't do any of this without dedicated committee members and volunteers. WOW has been wildly successful--so successful that I think we may see it replicated in other communities. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

[To find more information on these activities and a schedule of upcoming events, visit, or sign up for the weekly WOW e-mail by writing to]


Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, 
What I do you cannot do; but what you do, I cannot do. The needs are great, and none of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things with great love and together we can do something wonderful.
Not many of us could do the work that Carolyn Walker is doing. It is time-consuming, intellectually and socially demanding, frequently messy, and often unnoticed. Yet she--and all the good folks who work with her--are doing something truly wonderful. They are offering to our children and our earth a brighter, healthier future. It is hard to imagine more worthwhile work than that.

This interview series is meant to celebrate people in and around west-central North Carolina who are making valiant efforts to live sustainably and to help others on their own sustainable living journeys. It is my hope that these interviews will be a source of information and inspiration to the readers of this blog.

**If you would like to learn more about Richard Louv's book, Last Child in the Woods, or to become involved in the Child and Nature Network that was established to respond to the challenges presented in the book, visit

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