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Helen Schuler Nature Centre staff offer new opportunities to connect during the pandemic

​When the pandemic began most recreation and cultural activities were suspended for citizens as public facilities temporarily closed. Although the Helen Schuler Nature Centre facility was closed, the staff found ways to engage with residents and provide nature-based programming to the community.

"The Nature Centre staff took a two stream approach to continue offering programming for the community" states Coreen Putman, Helen Schuler Nature Centre Manager "The first was to develop and increase the Centre's online presence and resources. The second stream was to take advantage of Lethbridge's vast parks and open spaces, particularly the River Valley parks as the outside remained open."

Seeing the opportunity to go online, the Nature Centre programming and facility staff put a strong focus on developing much needed digital resources. Educational and activity-based resources were developed for use by families, schools, and community groups. The focus was to reach as many people as possible, and to support community partners and their clients. Digital resources can be downloaded from the City of Lethbridge's website, shared on social media, and can be easily adapted and printed into brochures or activity kits. The digital and print resources were provided to over 100 organizations including; Family Services, School Districts and Food Banks.

One of the resources developed was Get Outside 101. These were simple, nature-based play ideas for the outdoors, made available on multiple different platforms for the public. Get Outside 101 provides outdoor activity ideas to follow on a weekly basis, such as Colour Quest, where you try to spot nature items of a certain colour based on found objects.  The program was built using visual instructions to help reach a broader audience. This program also included delivery to families accessing supports as part of the Mindful Munchies program in partnership with other local agencies.

The effort to go digital from the Nature Centre staff did not go unnoticed as feedback from users filled their inbox.  Comments from teachers who utilized the resources when teaching online included: "My students loved the virtual fieldtrip! They are already asking about when they can do another. Thank you for this awesome experience!" and "Thank you for your creative solution to providing your amazing programs in a new way! We loved it!!"

The second programming stream focused on leveraging the unique River Valley Park and providing activities for the public to do outside, as the outdoors are open.

"The Nature Centre facility is a very interactive, hands-on, play based facility that connects people with nature and each other. The staff and volunteers want to provide this experience as best as possible outdoors" states Putman. "Nature connectedness helps every aspect of our lives including physical and mental wellness along with spending time with loved ones outside."

The Nature Centre staff try to program the park trails the way they would program their facility, and build outdoor adventures on the trail.

The Nature Centre team focus on self-directed displays/exhibits/installations. The Choose Your Own Adventure displays used chance scenarios, such as flipping a coin, to direct your nature walk exploration. The Nature Centre staff also created the Daily Dose of Nature that ran through the winter holiday season when children were out of school. With many normal holiday activities not available due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Daily Dose provided a fun and different daily activity for families to get outside and explore the River Valley.

Exhibits routinely change throughout the year to keep residents returning to the River Valley. Currently, you can visit the River Valley and participate in the Spring Nest Fest where you can discover the birds in the area, what type of nests they build and the clutch size (how many eggs in the nest) until April 12. The activity is like an egg hunt in a game format.

In the last year, 151 unique outdoor installations over 12 different city parks were set up. An estimated 22,000 people have engaged or interacted with them. Social media feedback from the public for the outdoor programming included: "The Helen Schuler Nature Centre in Lethbridge found a nice way to encourage people to explore the coulees during #Covid19. Prairie Crocus are in bloom!" and "Thanks so much for the effort to still make the Nature Centre great for kids even though your closed! We had a blast today exploring and learning!!"

The work done by the Nature Centre staff to provide nature based programming during the pandemic has demonstrated a strong commitment to support the community. "I am proud of our team of staff and volunteers for keeping focused to provide a meaningful and memorable experience for customers" says Putman. "It has made a challenge into an opportunity for the better going forward".