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Into The Woods
Local nature programs that calm, refocus and connect people to the world around them


July 2018

Does life have you stressed out, stomach in knots, head pounding? Studies show that our environment can increase or reduce the level of stress we feel, but a pleasant milieu reverses that condition. It’s no wonder that most people, regardless of age or culture, choose a natural setting as a retreat when they want to slow things down. Even brief interactions with nature can soothe our brains.

“Many studies show time in nature is restorative, calming and even an antidote to some health problems,” says Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center (UEC) in Milwaukee, which “fosters ecological understanding as inspiration for change, neighborhood by neighborhood,” according to its mission statement. The UEC provides many such restorative settings at its three sites right here in the metro area.

For those who enjoy studying wildlife in its natural habitation, for example, the UEC’s Washington Park location is a fabulous oasis for urban birds and other critters. Groups can walk through the different habitats looking for birds, mammals, butterflies and other natural denizens. “We have canoe programs, walking clubs, a young scientist club, yoga and other activities. All three sites have similar programs,” says Leinbach.

First-hand experience has shown Leinbach that time spent in nature creates an uplifting and inspiring environment. “I got into this work as a high school science teacher. I found that when I took my students outside for class, the high-achieving kids did well, but the lower achieving kids tended to improve,” he says.

Interestingly, a field of psychotherapy has been introduced that places nature at the center of treatment. “It uses the power of nature to promote mental health,” Leinbach says.

Fortunately, you can find abundant local opportunities to drink in nature’s bounty and soothe your tired gray matter. The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is another local treasure, a land conservancy that provides environmental education and accessible trails for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.

“What we try to do is connect people to the natural world, get them to love it and care for it enough to make some sacrifices,” says Don Quintenz, senior ecologist for the center. “We do that through our programs for preschoolers through older adults, including those with dementia and disabilities. We can accommodate all people. I’m a water person and my favorite thing is to take a kayak down some of the little rivulets that are too small to earn a name,” he says.

If you want to give yourself a little time to recover from the demands of urban life while contributing to the preservation of our natural world, there are many ways to volunteer, says Quintenz. “We have a beautiful property with prairies, woodlands and wet lands. Our volunteers go out and help heal the land by cutting down weeds and other invasive plants, all kinds of things,” he notes.

But time in nature isn’t just relaxing; it can pump you up, too. Some experimental psychology studies have linked exposure to nature with increased energy and a heightened sense of well-being. Research has shown that people on wilderness excursions report feeling more alive and that just the act of remembering their experiences later increases their feelings of good health and happiness. 

As psychotherapist and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Philip Chard notes, “When feeling wounded, adrift or in need of solace, many of us seek to connect with the natural world.”

For more information about these outdoor programs to soothe you and bring you closer to nature, visit and


This story ran in the July 2018 issue of: