Wallingford native Mary Cole started the Fit by Nature program to get children disconnected from technology and more connected to nature.
The program, held twice a week for three weeks at Mixville Park, is run by the Cheshire Parks and Recreation Department.
For an hour and a half on Mondays and Wednesdays, a handful of children between the ages of 5 and 12 meet with Cole and her helper, Sheehan High School student Ryen Wolcheski. Cole is a certified physical education and health teacher, with 20 years of teaching experience.
“I have seen how so many kids are tethered to a make-believe world through technology,” Cole said. “Too much screen time is literally changing how kids’ brains develop. A connection to nature can contribute to healthy mental and physical growth, building confidence and strength.”
During the first week of this month, the group took advantage of remaining snow and did some sledding.
Parks and Recreation Program Coordinator Tim Weed said each class has a different message.
“You can listen to the river or overcome obstacles,” Weed said. “Fit by Nature helps with mental and physical fitness and improvement of the overall well being.”
Cole and Wolcheski greet their students as they come onto the grounds. They sit on a blanket together and Cole asks each child to share one thing they are thankful for.
Then they head to the woods for “shinrin-yoku,” or forest bathing. Each student found a tree and put their hands on it. Later, the group rested their heads on a tree and looked up at the sky. As they walked through the wooded area and across a small bridge, children made sounds to mimic owls. They were instructed to make that noise whenever they saw something move on the ground.
The group moved around the park as Cole talked about the importance of nature.
“This type of socialization is even more important now with so many children remote-learning,” she said.
Wallingford’s Scott Burns has two daughters, Mckinley, 5, and Kennedy, 7, in the program.
“We did the first session in December and my girls said we had to do it again,” Burns said. “Mary does a great job and the girls love her.”
Cole said she has a “blast” teaching the program and is proud that all students from the initial session returned for the second round. Cole has done similar programs in Wallingford and Meriden.
“The kids have responded so well,” Cole said. “It’s been so much fun.”