Posted by: James Wapotich | September 4, 2012

Trail Quest: The Museum Backyard

In 2005, Richard Louv wrote his ground breaking book entitled, “The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder”, which highlighted the crisis facing children today. Even though in many ways the world children live in is expanding their connection to nature is shrinking and that something as common as playing outdoors may be on its way to becoming a thing of the past.

Children today on average spend only 30 minutes a week in unstructured time outdoors, while on average spend 45 hours a week watching television, playing video games, using computers, and listening to audio media.

Studies have shown that when children regularly play in natural environments their play is more diverse and imaginative; that it cultivates communication and collaboration skills; reduces or eliminates bullying; and stimulates all aspects of development more readily than indoor play. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate after contact with nature. And nature can buffer the impact of life’s stress on children and help them better deal with adversity.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Backyard Richard Louv

Kids exploring the Backyard Museum at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

It’s also interesting to consider that these numbers can’t be any better for adults and that Nature Deficit Disorder doesn’t just affect kids. And while we in Santa Barbara are surrounded by a tremendous amount of natural beauty, that still doesn’t make it any easier for us to unplug and go out and experience it.

That’s not to say technology is bad, but rather finding a balance is becoming more and more challenging and in a lot of ways because of our schedules, increased urbanization, and our perceptions around letting kids play outdoors on their own it’s become harder for kids to access nature.

One remedy for families is the Museum Backyard at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The Backyard is the inspiration of Elaine Gibson and includes access to Mission Creek, rocks for climbing, timber bamboo and a place to build a fort, a water course that one can explore and race boats in, water pumps, a place to make mud pies, and a small stage for kids to play on.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Backyard Richard Louv fort building

Visitors are seen buidling a fort in the Museum Backyard

But the Museum Backyard is more than just a place for kids to play and explore, it’s guided by the awareness that this is exactly what kids need to grow and flourish as healthy individuals and that that’s ultimately what the world needs.

“I’d read Richard Louv’s book and I did not believe what he was saying, because I couldn’t imagine that a childhood could be separate from an outdoor experience.” Ms. Gibson told the News-Press. Ms. Gibson, who has a master’s degree in Education Psychology, joined the Museum staff part time in 2006 to create new discovery labs for the Museum.

Then one day in March 2007 the Museum found itself double booked with 90 school kids and inspiration struck. “Since the lab was on habitats, I decided to take the kids outside to the creek. And as we were going under the trees I heard kids say ‘This is scary’, ‘I’m afraid’. And then one of the kids said, ‘Was that a monkey?’ as they pointed to something they heard in the trees and it became obvious that their knowledge of the outdoors was coming from programs on television and not from first hand experience.”

Ms. Gibson then had the children dig in the leaf litter to find out about the creatures living there, the kids at first were resistant and apprehensive about digging in the dirt and then when they did and dug up earthworms they were afraid to touch them, asking ‘Does it bite?’, “Is it poisonous?’ “That’s when I knew what Nature Deficit Disorder really was and that it was real” Ms. Gibson said.

Santa Barbra Museum of Natural History backyard snake

A visitor is seen holding a snake in the Nature Club House

The good news is that there’s a cure for Nature Deficit Disorder. “I remember holding the earthworms in my hands and one of the kids said ‘Why are they different sizes?’ and that’s when I realized that asking those types of questions about nature, comes from the experience of being in nature, not from a book or seeing it indoors” Ms. Gibson added.

As the children’s natural curiosity of the world around them emerged they became more engaged and comfortable in their environment, so much so that when it came time to go many of the children did not want to leave. Based on that initial success of connecting kids with nature, the creek visit became a regular part of the school trips hosted by the Museum.

Two years later, in 2009, a back area of the Museum that was normally closed to the public was converted into the Museum Backyard as a place where it’s okay to climb on rocks, dig in the dirt and have unstructured play in a natural setting. In fact, throughout the backyard there are signs that say “Climb”, “Listen”, “Search”, and “Build” mostly to help parents know that it’s okay for kids to explore and play there. The Backyard is open to both Museum visitors as well us used as part of the school visits.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History backyard

Kids playing at the Museum Backyard

More recently, with a grant from the Williams-Corbett Foundation, the vacant residential studio next to the backyard was converted into a Nature Club House, which includes a variety of local insects and reptiles in terrariums that kids can touch and see. Plus shells, nests, snake skins, feathers, and whatever else that naturalists have donated, all of which can be picked up and handled by the kids.

The Club House also has Discovery Packs available that were donated by the Santa Barbara Sunrise Rotary Club, which include a magnifying glass, collecting jars and field guides so that families can go out on their own and explore the creek and surrounding four acres of oak woodland.

Next to the Nature Clubhouse is the Santa Barbara Audubon Aviary for rescued birds and each day between 2-4 PM volunteers from Eyes in the Sky bring out these hawks and owls for visitors to see up close.

All of this is geared towards allowing kids to reconnect with the natural world around them. “What we decided was that instead of focusing on classes on Environmental Education, we’d instead focus on the experience of really being outdoors and that feeling of being free to make your own discoveries and allowing the natural curiosity that is a part of childhood take over. And when you hear kids say ‘Thanks for letting be in real nature’ and ‘I feel free and alive’ you realize how important this is.” Ms. Gibson explained.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is located at 2559 Puesta del Sol, just past the Santa Barbara Mission. The Museum is open daily from 10:00AM to 5:00PM. To get to the Museum Backyard, from the main entrance of the museum head to the back towards the creek and veer to the right.

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History backyard water course

A young visitor enjoys the water course in the Museum Backyard

Admission for the day is $10-11 per adults depending on the time of year, less for children, teens and seniors, however an annual Family Membership is only $80 and includes free admission to the Museum as well as the Sea Center. The third Sunday of each month is also Family Nature Day at the Museum and admission that day is free to the public September through May.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History was founded in 1916 and features exhibits, displays and a variety of special programs about nature and the natural history of our area. For a calendar of events, to become a member, or learn more about volunteering and how to support the Museum go to For teachers interested in brining their class to the Museum, from the Museum homepage click the link for School and Teacher Services.

This article originally appeared in section A of the September 1st, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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