We should all know this by now: People, especially children, tend to feel better and lead healthier lives when they spend time outdoors in nature.
At the same time, we are all increasingly alienated from the natural world by urbanization and technology. Research published in the past decade – with sources ranging from the Journal of the American Medical Association to journalist Richard Louv’s now-famous book “Last Child in the Woods” – finds consistently that when children spend time outdoors, they experience improvements in motor skills, obesity rates, emotional resiliency and intellectual development.
But according to the University of Michigan Health System, children between the ages of two to five spend an average of 32 hours a week in front of a TV or other screen, and screen time only increases as we get older.
When I was growing up as an only child in the Spicewood area of the Hill Country northwest of Austin, I was fortunate enough to be able to run, jump and play in a wilderness filled with adventures. I was a free-range kid, and was blessed by that experience.
As Louv says in his book: “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).”
At the Cibolo Nature Center (CNC) and Farm in Boerne, nature-based programs for children and adults are held on 160 acres of wilderness and farmland. Time in nature is believed to be more than an investment in our health; it is an investment in the health of the natural resources we depend on for our survival. The nonprofit nature center operates on the principle that in order to preserve nature and the resources it provides, we must know it and love it.
That’s why, in addition to accredited science programs for schoolchildren, the CNC offers events, activities, workshops, seminars and demonstrations for all ages to help people reconnect with the natural world and fall in love with it. During any given week, the CNC might conduct a wildlife study with volunteers, teach a workshop on landscaping with native plants, convene a group of experts to demonstrate the natural sciences to children or stage a family friendly outdoor concert.
The organization’s 100-acre nature preserve along Cibolo Creek protects four distinct native Hill Country habitats and is open to the public for hiking, wildlife watching and making that intimate contact with the outdoors.
The “Farm” in the Cibolo Nature Center and Farm is the historic Herff Farm, a 60-acre remnant of a pioneer farmstead located across Cibolo Creek from the nature preserve. Established in 1852 by Dr. Ferdinand Herff, the farm once encompassed 10,000 acres. The Herff home, a two-story limestone farmhouse built before the Civil War and rebuilt around 1883, still stands and is undergoing restoration. In 2010, the Herff Farm was listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was named by Preservation Texas as one of Texas’ Most Endangered Historic Places.
The CNC is in the process of reestablishing this landmark as a center for sustainable living. Open to the public for less than two years, the Herff Farm offers a weekly farmers market, a demonstration garden and Saturday programs that teach organic gardening, water conservation and other ways families can live more lightly on the earth by incorporating simple lifestyle changes. A $5 million major gift campaign is under way to expand the scope of educational resources the Herff Farm can offer to families.
Years ago, as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, I worked as an escrow assistant for a title company. That job gave me a opportunity to learn about farm and ranch real estate – and how quickly farms and ranches were being subdivided and developed while the natural resources those properties once protected began to disappear. Eventually, I decided I wanted to use my real-estate skills as tools to help protect natural lands for the public common good.
Recently, that aspiration led me to a staff position at the Cibolo Nature Center and Farm. Now I get to live in the Hill Country and help engage people who live here in protecting our natural resources. I’m living my dream. Protecting natural resources – like water and wildlife – for people is vital. Finding ways to get more kids of all ages in nature to experience the beauty of their surroundings will change their lives forever.
From my perspective, and that of the thousands of children and adults who take part in its activities and programs each year, the Cibolo Nature Center and Farm is a jewel. In the 25 years since it was established by co-founders Carolyn Chipman Evans and Brent Evans and a handful of volunteers, the CNC has been recognized nationally and internationally as a model for nature centers that are created by communities to enrich community life.
As authors of the award-winning “The Nature Center Book: How to Create and Nurture a Nature Center in Your Community,” published by InterpPress, the Evans’ lead workshops around the country on how nature centers can be community catalysts. Last spring, after their book was translated for publication in Japan and China, they were invited to present workshops in those countries to leading educators, environmentalists, medical professionals, community planners and other interested individuals and groups.
For the kids and families of San Antonio and the surrounding Hill Country, the Cibolo Nature Center & Farm is a place where people can “put their feet in the creek and their hands in the dirt,” as we like to say around here.
This place – along with other sanctuaries for nature and people – gives me hope that we can live in harmony with our surroundings, if we work together to learn about our history and the wonders of the natural world, and embrace the communities in which we live.
The Cibolo Nature Center & Farm is located at Boerne City Park off Highway 46 just west of the Kendall County Fairgrounds.
Our trails are open daily from 8 a.m. to dusk. Come out and take a hike along the creek.
Cheyenne Johnson has been director of development at the Cibolo Nature Center & Farm since December. Previously on staff with the Texas Land Trust Council and the Hill Country Conservancy, both in Austin, she now lives in Bandera. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.