I’m a firm believer that time spent outdoors in nature can make a lasting impact on our lives. Looking back, I’m sure that one of the biggest reasons I pursued a career in horticulture was because of my childhood spent outdoors. It also fueled my passion for growing a garden and learning all I could about plants.
I grew up in a rural area and was fortunate to have the forest in my backyard and a mountain stream running just steps from my home. My family grew a vegetable garden, picked wild blackberries and harvested timber for building fences. I was surrounded by this well of sustainable knowledge and practices, and it’s stuck with me throughout my life.
Not all children have easy exposure to the outdoors, though, especially in cities and more urban areas. We’re fortunate here in the Triad to have a lot of green spaces, state parks and natural areas around us. And ensuring that kids have easy access to these outdoor areas is incredibly important on so many different levels.
Minglewood Farm and Nature Preserve in Westfield is working hard to give kids access to the outdoors and foster self-discovery of the natural world. Bill and Margie Imus are lifelong naturalists and market farmers and have been operating their nonprofit learning center at Minglewood for the past eight years. Their overall goal is to give kids access to the outdoors and allow them to explore and experience all that the forest has to offer.
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“Kids just don’t have the same chances to get out,” said Bill. “When we were young, we had all that self-discovery, and we try to replicate that when we have kids come up. We like them to explore, they connect so much better when they show it to you.”
The Imuses have a special property at Minglewood, consisting of 65 acres of forested land, managed gardens and unique ecosystems. Bill has worked diligently over the years to observe and diversify the tree species on the property, ensuring that there’s an ideal balance for nature.
They have an impressive series of trails throughout the property, which makes it easy for kids to discover all the lessons that the forest holds.
“Kids today have a disconnect to the natural world,” Margie said. “If we can help connect them back through their lessons and discoveries on their own, it’s amazing how they can just wake right up and come alive.”
Minglewood is the ideal place for teachers to bring their students to learn outside of the classroom, as so many lessons are available on this special property. Watershed studies, soil science, habitat, life cycles, creative writing, art and geology are just a few examples of curriculum-based lessons that are possible at Minglewood.
Minglewood has opportunities for all grade levels — from kindergarten to college students. But their main emphasis is on elementary grades, ages that the Imuses recognize are very special for self-discovery in nature.
“We mostly focus on elementary kids,” Margie said. “We decided a few years ago that we wanted to focus on younger children because we felt like if we introduced the sciences, the vocabulary and the opportunities of learning within the natural world, that they’ll hold this love of the natural world throughout their lives, hopefully.”
Spring, summer and fall are busy times at Minglewood, as there are numerous camps, hikes, outings and nature art workshops scheduled for kids and adults. These naturalist day camps and toddler treks offer opportunities for kids to learn about trees, birds, growing vegetables and insects. They may even be able to get their feet wet in the creek while searching for invertebrates.
One lesson that is really emphasized at Minglewood is the importance of symbiotic relationships in nature and working in a respectful, sustainable way with land. Bill likes to convey this message to the kids by talking about the connectivity between healthy soils, pollinators and a diverse ecosystem.
“One of our big messages is how to live with your environment and not to take too much out of it that it depletes it,” Bill said.
Because the North Carolina foothills are a very biodiverse area, the Imuses really want to show children the special value of their home state, helping to sculpt an appreciation for where they live. In this way, Minglewood strives to craft a sense of place to make kids and all visitors more cognizant of the beauty all around them.
“We want to share with everyone that we live in a very special place, especially these children in Surry and Stokes counties and the North Carolina foothills,” Margie said. “It’s a highly diverse biological area, and a lot of these children don’t realize what a special area it is. Introducing them to the native hardwood forests, the watershed, and the farming we have going on — it connects them back to a sense of place.”
Whether you’re a teacher, an environmental educator or a parent looking for an outdoor enrichment opportunity for your students and children, Minglewood is a fantastic place to stimulate imagination and gain invaluable knowledge of the natural world. But Minglewood staff also bring their lessons into schools, doing workshops on school campuses and planting seasonal gardens.
“It’s hard for teachers to schedule field trips,” Margie said. “That’s why Minglewood offers the opportunity for our staff to come to the school or meet in a public space such as greenspaces or greenways. We can meet on their campus and just get students beyond the four walls. They hold on to their lessons much more when they’re outside or beyond the desk.”
A recent gala held at Minglewood raised considerable funds for bringing their curriculum-based learning into schools with limited resources. The funds raised will help service under-served schools and pay for field trips for kids to come to Minglewood.
Since starting Minglewood in 2014, Bill and Margie have seen considerable strides in their education programs and infrastructure at the preserve.
“We love what we do,” Bill said. “We’re so passionate about it, that the kids can’t help but feel it. Overall, the progress we’ve made in eight years is really astounding. We’ve been able to build bathrooms and we’ve increased the amount of people coming up. We just feel like our future is really bright.”
Engaging with nature is so integral to gardening, as the mere interaction with a patio tomato gets us outside with the birds and the wind. Just feeling the sunshine on our face or observing a butterfly is all it takes to spark excitement sometimes.
“One of the things we tell the kids is that we’re not just farmers, but we’re naturalists,” Margie said. “We’re lovers of the natural world, and that’s what we want them to be.”
Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon or [email protected], with “gardening” in the subject line. Or write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101.