Last week I had the great pleasure of visiting the Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder, CO. While there, founder Oakleigh Thorne II took some time to talk with me and show me around their beautiful facility.
Started over 55 years ago the institute has connected over 200,000 kids and adults to nature since its inception. The institute began as a research station that educated both children and adults, including government and business leaders. But over the years, Thorne decided to the real focus should be on the kids, which is what they are fully dedicated to now.
Throughout the school year groups of 30-60 school children come 3 times a week to Sombrero Marsh, a 40 acre plot of open space where most of the classes take place, and during the summer, science camps venture out a bit farther to the institute's Waterton Canyon site and Boulder Open Spaces.
Oak, as he goes by, was a "nature kid" from the start. Growing up on Long Island, he spent many afternoons running through the 80 acres of woods he called home, catching fireflies and box turtles. Later as an adolescent he attended the Millbrook School in New York where he learned about bird banding, and at age 18 became one of the the youngest people to be given a permit to bird band. All of this culminated in his collegiate years with a summer project through the Yale Conservation Program at the American Museum of Natural History where he was challenged to raise money to save the Sunken Forest on Fire Island, NY. That experience gave him the motivation to start the Thorne Ecological Research Station, which was later changed to Institute and the rest is history.
In August of 2001 the institute moved into the Sombrero Marsh space they occupy now. In a partnership with the city of Boulder and The Boulder Valley School district, the marsh and the buildings on site provide the perfect set up to show kids just how amazing nature can be. Two large classrooms set the stage for activities like seed identification and getting a closer look at a few of the marsh's local critters like Slimey the tiger salamander.
Once outside a man made wetland lets the kids get an up close and hands-on look at a beautiful ecosystem filled with algae and water nymphs, while boardwalks wind their way around the area allowing children to observe the full array of life that inhabits the area. I personally loved the bird blind and the amazing viewing opportunities from the enclosed shelter. While I was there I was lucky enough to see a Great Blue Heron and several species of ducks and birds of prey.
But the best part? Having such an enthusiastic tour guide! Oak hasn't lost a wink of his childhood enthusiasm for the natural world he loves. With binoculars around his neck, he eagerly points out different birds and even can imitate the sounds they make. All along our walk he was pointing out different aspects of the marsh like they were old friends. It's hard to believe any child could walk away from an experience like this and not carry a part of it with them for the rest of their lives. "I can still imagine a lot of my childhood," Oak said. Which is easy to see as he has found a meaningful way to remain outside and help children have the same experience his whole life long.
Thanks Oak for a wonderful afternoon!
*Last time in Nature: Time to Get the Garden Growing