Connecting Chicago-Area Youth with Nature

The Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods is nestled within 565 acres of magnificent woodlands in Lake County, Illinois. It’s also less than 50 miles from Chicago and other urban areas in Illinois.

Taking advantage of its proximity to both the natural and built worlds, the Center has embraced a mission of promoting nature to nurture personal and community well-being. Bosque de Salud, or Forest of Health, is an innovative program to make that connection. Supported in part by a Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) community grant, it gives youth hands-on, educational interaction with the natural world to encourage them to understand their relationship with the environment and inspire a lifetime of stewardship. The students–and their families—come from the Highwood, North Chicago, Round Lake, and Waukegan communities, communities that, on average, are nearly one-half Hispanic and Latinx and have lower median incomes and higher rates of obesity and diabetes than national averages.

A “Pollinator Promise” that reads “I will help my grandma plant some flowers and I will leave water for hummingbirds”
A “Pollinator Promise” that reads “I will help my grandma plant some flowers and I will leave water for hummingbirds”


Kicking Off with PLT

Bosque de Salud/Forest of Health kicked off with a Project Learning Tree workshop to train 22 staff and volunteers from five community-based partner organizations: Cool Learning Experience, Foss Park District, Nuestro Center, Roberti Community House, and Round Lake Bilingual Parent Advisory Committee. They learned how to incorporate PLT activities into the classroom and informal settings, with a focus on how to do so in city neighborhoods. Brushwood then coordinated visits by music and art groups to each partner site.

Students wrote environmentally-themed skits and music, built eco-friendly cityscapes with “upcycled” cardboard and craft supplies, and made a “Pollinator Promise” that involved simple but specific steps, such as planting native flowers, to help local pollinators. Field trips to the Center followed, including events to involve students’ families.


Why a Forest of Health?

As most PLT educators know, the inactivity of today’s youth, often referred to as “generation indoors,” has long-term health repercussions and startling associated statistics. The percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the ‘70s. Mental health is also affected, and quality of life is reduced. But studies show that spending just 5 minutes around trees has positive impacts on people’s immune systems, blood pressure, mood, and focus—even in children with ADHD.

Brushwood Center wanted to extend these health benefits for everyone and to educate and empower by building community-wide awareness around the importance of natural resources and being outdoors. Nanci Sarmiento, Brushwood’s Community Engagement Fellow, helped coordinate the program, which involves her own neighborhood, “The community that I live in experiences lots of stress; because it’s a low-income community, parents are always working, and they don’t have enough time with their children. Personally, my brother and I barely see my dad because he leaves for work around five in the morning and isn’t back until eleven at night,” she said.

Sarmiento added that the Center’s work represents an investment beyond education: the Forest of Health/Bosque de Salud program is a convener for her community, a time set aside for mindfulness outdoors that results in better health for her own family, community, and the environment. Her brother and mother have participated in the activities. “When [my mother] visited Brushwood, her thoughts started changing a lot,” Saramiento said. “We have recycling bins in the house now, and whenever we go to stores, she brings her reusable bags. She understands that everything we do impacts nature, and if we all make small changes, it can create big changes for our environment.”


Participants in Brushwood Center’s PLT Certification Workshop
Participants in Brushwood Center’s PLT Certification Workshop

Nature for All

Brushwood’s community-focused, inclusive approach to environmental education also reinforces that nature is for all to enjoy. For example, Spanish-speaking parents may hesitate to attend events where they need to rely on a friend or family member to translate. By ensuring that events have a bilingual guide or translator available, Brushwood ensures that attendees feel welcome knowing that they won’t struggle to communicate and are able to ask questions. Brushwood’s family days provide a place where daily stress dissolves, and friends and neighbors can enjoy the wonders and many health benefits of the natural world.

By focusing on the area’s specific needs, through PLT, field trips, and family days, the Center is transforming community-wide perceptions of the value of nature, one person at a time.


Learn More

The Forest of Health/Bosque de Salud program was supported in part by the independent, non-profit Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) through funding from SFI’s Community Grants program. It included indoor and outdoor classroom materials from Project Learning Tree, an initiative of SFI, and a workshop facilitated by the Illinois PLT state sponsor, the Illinois Environmental Education Association.

To read more about Bosque de Salud, go to SFI’s blog, and check out Brushwood Center’s blog.

Jennifer Byerly

Jennifer Byerly

Jennifer Byerly is PLT's Director of Communications. She focuses on digital communications and community-building; please feel free to email her and share your PLT story!