This week we said farewell for now to the Flemings, who have been longtime supporters of the Nature Center. We wish them all the best on their new adventure in Colorado.The article below about their generosity and commitment to the Nature Center appeared in our 2017 annual report.
Passion for connecting children to nature inspires Joyce & Mark Fleming’s gift to outdoor playscape
Indian Creek Nature Center’s Hazelnut Hideaway Outdoor Playscape, completed in 2017 at Amazing Space, is a natural wonderland for young children, the young-at-heart, families, and everyone who comes to the campus. With its gigantic turtle mound, grass weaving loom, spider web swing, hand pump water feature, and 18-foot-tall tipi, the opportunities for imaginative play are endless. It’s exactly that focus — on free, imaginative play, exploration, and lack of formal structure — that inspired Joyce and Mark Fleming to invest the lead capital gift in creating Hazelnut Hideaway. They believe, and research overwhelmingly supports, that these opportunities are just what children need in a society in which their time is increasingly scheduled and spent connected to technology.
Joyce and Mark Fleming’s connection to Indian Creek Nature Center runs deep. Joyce began volunteering as a teacher naturalist (TN) in 1979, only six years after the organization was founded. She worked with then volunteer Jan Aiels to recruit new TNs, conduct trainings, and create and execute new programs. Joyce’s devotion to getting children outside and encouraging their sense of wonder in nature is rooted in her own connection to the natural world. It began with her upbringing on a farm, playing with her siblings in the woods until her mother called them home by ringing an old Spanish bell. It continued through Joyce earning a degree in environmental science; raising two daughters, and supporting the family nursery business. Her time spent teaching children at the Nature Center was an extension and an expression of her passion.
“The whole idea of teaching a kid a sense of wonder—it doesn’t take much to get the preschool and lower elementary kids to grab that. It’s already there. You just need to show them it’s important,” Joyce said. “But the opportunity for kids to spend time outdoors at school is limited, and parents must be on board as well. Somewhere along the line, we just don’t give priority to being outside. Parents got really busy doing extracurricular stuff with their kids. Unless the child has a parent who is interested [in the outdoors], they don’t get that — parents need a willingness to bring kids outside.”
This truth is at the heart of Indian Creek Nature Center’s vision to create Champions of Nature. Only people who care deeply about nature, who feel a sense of wonder about it and understand its importance, will work to protect it. And that connection is made most easily in childhood. Joyce is so deeply involved that she then helped hire longtime ICNC Director of Education, Jan Aiels, who retired in 2016 after 24 years of service.
An outdoor playscape is the ideal place for hands-on activity, creativity, free play and exploration to occur. In a society suffering from “nature-deficit disorder,” as Richard Louv called this phenomenon in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, spaces that connect people to the natural world are more important than ever. The benefits of connecting to nature have been well documented over the last two decades, and collectively, this body of research shows that children’s social, psychological, academic and physical health is positively impacted when they have daily contact with nature. In December 2017, Hazelnut Hideway received national recognition as a Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom for achieving these goals.
The time, talent and gifts of hundreds of people made Hazelnut Hideaway a reality. Through the Nature Center’s successful 2016 Giving Tuesday campaign, individuals donated more than $9,000 to fund the purchase and installation of the final playscape elements. Many volunteer groups and individuals spent countless hours helping prepare the land and install the various elements. Joyce’s husband, Mark Fleming, is one of those individuals. Mark’s many years of experience in the family business he started, Fleming Nursery, have proven an invaluable resource to Indian Creek Nature Center. In Hazelnut Hideaway, Mark did all of the earth-moving to create the turtle mound, and has helped with many other projects over the years, such as earth-moving work in the Nature Center’s Patterson Family Amphitheater. But the Nature Center has also helped him.
“On the business side, I tried to be responsible environmentally. I worked with Rich Patterson and Jean Wiedenheft a great deal, and learned about doing things the proper way, the way that works,” Mark said. “I think the most important thing is getting city people to appreciate nature and get away from the rigid structure and get back to appreciating the prairie, the trees, the grass; and you need to start it at a young age so [that appreciation] grows as they grow, and they have the memories of nature, because it’s so important to life for everyone.”
“The ICNC naturalists help children see the interconnection of life.” Joyce echoes his sentiment: “It is my passion to learn new things about the natural world and to share those with others, especially children. [At ICNC] I can find people who have the same passion and being around them inspires my soul to carry on.” She adds, “It’s important for us to teach our children the sense of wonder that Rachel Carson taught us back in the ‘60s. There is only one Earth and what we teach our children about how to treat it will be the future we live in: whether it’s a healthy future or a dying one, it’s up to us.”