Corey Guenther shows enthusiasm as he plays in the snow during a recent Project Get Outdoors (Project GO) event in Chatfield.
Corey Guenther shows enthusiasm as he plays in the snow during a recent Project Get Outdoors (Project GO) event in Chatfield.
The points lose their power when they're sedentary...or even high definition.

Honestly, who wants to be the last child indoors?

"We don't do Powerpoints or other more sedentary indoor programs," said Sandy Sullivan, of Chatfield's Project Get Outdoors (Project GO). She, along with her husband, Bill, leads the nature exploration expedition for six weeks each season, introducing elementary school children to the wonders of going outside and learning about everything from dirt and thistles to compasses and quinzees.

The Sullivans have been involved with GO since the program's start in Chatfield three years ago, in the summer of 2010.

Sandy stated, "Project GO is not just a Chatfield program. It was the brainchild of Sara Grover, who is currently a naturalist in Whitewater State Park. There are a number of iterations in neighboring towns: Plainview, Winona, Rochester, St. Charles and others."

She explained that the mission of Project GO is to facilitate outdoor recreation experiences that build healthy kids and increase environmental stewardship behaviors.

"With busy parents and full schedules, many kids don't get outside to play as often as in the past," she added. "We hope by offering Project GO in Chatfield, we provide the opportunity for kids to get out to explore and have fun in nature and thus better appreciate its value."

Project GO meets Tuesday afternoons after school, at which point students convene at Chatfield High School for a snack and instructions regarding the day's activity, which can be anything from playing hockey to orienteering, or using compasses and global positioning systems to find their way through the Savanna Springs Nature Area.

"We go out for at least part of each session, and the children are pretty good at dressing appropriately for the weather," Sandy said.

In spite of the high-definition video game and television revolution that might have captured some children's attention, they're still children at heart.

"They have so much energy and really crave active after-school time. We always begin each session with an active game or two to give them a chance to let loose before we began the planned program," Sandy continued. "They really need to run, jump, hop and do somersaults down the hill before settling into a more formal program. We often have requests to repeat a particular activity that they enjoyed, and they always ask on the bus to the high school, 'What are we doing today?' They seem to look forward to the day's activities."

Chatfield's Project GO began as a weekly event, evolving into a more manageable model as the Sullivans and assisting volunteers determined what they could handle to provide a meaningful outing for the explorers.

"We originally envisioned an every week, year-round program but modified it to four sessions of six weeks each. We realized after a couple of sessions that we would burn out with no breaks," Sandy explained.

At first, the program was offered to students in kindergarten through sixth grade. However, with over 50 students, the advisors quickly determined the age range was too wide and cut the enrollment to 25 second, third and fourth graders.

Because the program still had over 60 applicants for a couple of sessions, they trimmed the age-range down to just third and fourth graders. This winter, there are 20 participants in the program. Sandy explained that the winter session has proven to be the programs smallest session of the year.

Planning activities for Project GO takes creativity and the sense of adventure that Sandy and Bill want to instill in their charges. Also, Eagle Bluff Nature Learning Center of Lanesboro coordinates part of Chatfield's Project GO outings, and the group goes on an occasional field trip to local nature centers.

Sandy related, "Two years ago, Eagle Bluff partnered with us and now generally presents two of the programs every session. Their programs are always wonderful, and the kids look forward to their offerings. They send one or two of their naturalists, and have done geocaching, insect studies, invertebrates, forts and fires, and many others. The Eagle Bluff naturalists, Sarah Sturgis and Cheryl Newman, are really good with the kids, and their programs always have an environmental tie in."

She continued, "After this year, all of the original second graders will finish the program, so we are establishing a loose three-year rotation of programs. A lot depends on weather as to what activities we offer, and we come up with new activities every year. Last fall, we took the children fishing at Chester Woods and got a small grant which paid for a trip to do a water study in Whitewater State Park the summer before. So every once in a while, we do field trips away from the Savanna Springs Nature Area."

The most recent session, winter, of course, concluded two weeks ago during the bitter chill of a below-zero afternoon, when students insisted that they not stay indoors - they wanted to go outside and shoot pucks on the high school's makeshift hockey rink.

Sandy commented, "Winter is tough when you don't have snow! This year and last were almost snowless, so the usual winter activities don't work. We did shoe-hockey, sliding during the one week we had snow, a winter scavenger hunt, Eagle Bluff did a hibernation study and snowshoes with the kids. Other years, we've done snow sculptures, broom ball in the snow, built quinzees or igloos."

The spring session is still in the planning stages, but Bill and Sandy will bring their best ideas as usual.

"We haven't yet planned the spring session that will begin in April. Some of the things we've done in the past are Frisbee golf, kite flying, leaf identification, Outdoor Olympics, orienteering and making walking sticks," Sandy pointed out.

The Sullivans do not lead Project GO on their own, and they're thankful for the generosity of volunteers who have given time to the program.

"All of the volunteers involved with Project GO are outdoor enthusiasts and have a passion for getting kids out exploring and enjoying nature," Sandy said. "We enjoy seeing the excitement and energy the kids have and hopefully give them a chance to learn more about and become comfortable in the outdoors all year round."

Besides Bill and Sandy, who have been volunteering since the beginning, volunteers Melissa Ketterhagen and Debra Collum have helped for the past two years, Jim Duffy and Andrea Mueller have been lending a hand for a year, and a number of others have volunteered for shorter periods of time.

Community support of Project GO is certainly welcomed and appreciated.

"We are especially fortunate to have the Savanna Springs Nature Area at the high school, and appreciate the group of folks who help maintain that area," Sandy said. "We could always use people to provide snacks, or donations to support field trip transportation costs."

The Sullivans are hoping to recruit new volunteers to help students explore the outdoors. "If we could get volunteers to work with us, even for one session, we would be able to open up a second group of Project GO," she added. "We are always looking for volunteers to help with activities for even a single session, especially if they have a hobby or interest that would provide outdoor experiences for the kids."

Sandy concluded, "We just want people to be aware of how important outdoor experiences are in producing healthy children, both mentally and physically."

She referred to Richard Louv's book, "Last Child in the Woods," noting, "The future of green spaces and natural areas depends on each generation valuing these. We think the Project GO is one small step in promoting these values."