Published on August 23, 2021

Increasing Access to Nature at Laughing Brook

Students in this summer's pilot program pause to admire the namesake brook at Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary

Goal 2 of Mass Audubon's statewide Action Agenda focuses on inclusive and equitable access to nature. Because everyone deserves to enjoy the physical and mental benefits of the natural world—from clean air and water to shade and recreation.

In support of this goal, and in collaboration with the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, Mass Audubon West launched a new summer program that brings students from urban neighborhoods to Laughing Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Hampden. The Empowerment Zone works to accelerate student achievement in the City of Springfield's most underperforming schools, which is frequently where the most complex and vulnerable student populations lie.

To launch this pilot program, Mass Audubon West staff had to respond quickly to connections made by Empowerment Zone staff. Back in May, Sanctuary Director Jonah Keane followed up with principals at two Springfield schools about their need to keep students learning through the summer by organizing an outdoor, nature-based experience. With just weeks of lead time, Jonah organized logistics and hired staff to support a summer program at Laughing Brook, the sanctuary located closest to the schools.

Jonah was joined in this rapid response by West Education Manager Dale Abrams, who oversaw the creation of a curriculum to meet the specific needs of the students—and make sure they had a great time in nature this summer!

Students from the first school, Springfield Realization Academy, arrived in July to enjoy the easy flow of the brook in summer, the pavilion over the pond, and wildlife ranging from insects (not a favorite at first) to crayfish (an exciting find!). Three weeks later, young people from Forest Park Middle School arrived for their session.

With this summer's pilot program coming to an end, Mass Audubon West staff will work with the school principals and partners from the Empowerment Zone to evaluate the experience and identify ways to improve what will be offered next summer. An assessment of student learning and the curriculum's ability to help the students make a deeper connection to nature will be undertaken.

But the best feedback will be from the students themselves. From stories shared by Kyle Rodd, who coordinated and led the program, we hear that participants have been inspired by their time at Laughing Brook:

  • When asked to draw a picture showing the most fun they ever had in nature, the majority of young people's pictures were of the hike they had just taken around the sanctuary.
  • Reactions from delight in finding a baby snapping turtle to a mix of disgust and fascination with leaches showed the connection to nature growing from their successful exploring of the stream and vernal pools at the sanctuary.
  • On August 12 (at the height of a heat wave), staff focused on cooling activities—spending time by the stream, playing drip-drip-drop, and snacking on popsicles—and at the closing circle one participant said of the day: "It was perfect!"

Our staff look forward to growing the Laughing Brook program to serve more students in years to come as well as expanding to classroom programs offered during the school year. With all the vital components of a model project—undertaken with partners, created out of listening to the needs of the local community, and profoundly engaging young people with nature—this successful seed has the potential to grow and take root in Springfield.