A volunteer program created and run by students brings young hospital patients and their families outdoors and demonstrates the rejuvenating power of nature.

By Rebecca Liebschutz and Elise Matatall

Matthaei-Nichols student interns and U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital staff put their heads together last year to connect kids at Mott with nature at nearby Nichols Arboretum. The program, called Wild About Nature, was created by student interns with the help of the children’s education department at Matthaei-Nichols. Wild About Nature launched in 2014 and has been running monthly programs for siblings of families at the hospital since January of 2015. As a way to take advantage of the plants blooming this summer, we recently started offering weekday guided hikes, in which Wild About Nature volunteers walk with the families through the Arb and discuss the plants and animals that surround them.

Julie Piazza, the Project Manager of Child & Family Life at Mott and a key supporter of Wild About Nature, discussed the benefits of getting people in the hospital out in nature. “It’s a distraction from the hospital environment,” Piazza explains, “because it allows the families to be out in nature, which provides an element of comfort and a sense of calm. Nature itself softens the hospital environment,” she continues, and creates “a bridge to healing.” Nature lovers have been claiming this for years but there is growing evidence that interacting with nature does indeed reduce stress levels and can boost the immune system—an essential part of healing.

Patients often travel great distances to be seen by Mott’s world-class doctors, and they’re often fatigued, far from home, and worried about family. Exploring the Arb with trained volunteers enhances their experience as visitors to the hospital and to Ann Arbor. Says Piazza, “What we’re trying to embrace here at Mott is place-based education. You’re in the hospital, but you need to know what’s around you to heal. It’s important to know the hospital surroundings but also outside resources and the community that you are now a part of.” They’ll remember that experience forever, she adds, and if they find themselves in the hospital setting again they’ll say “‘wow, I get to come and see the Arb’ and they’ll know what’s outside their window a little bit more.”

Starting with a pilot program about insects in November 2014, Wild About Nature has since grown to include a faerie house-making activity, a hot-chocolate workshop, and a peony scavenger hunt, among others. Each program involves an outdoor adventure component as well as a craft, such as making peonies with pipe cleaners and tissue paper or “growing” a paper cacao tree. At this time, volunteers and hospital staff are focused on quality over quantity. The hospital environment is quite different from the Botanical Gardens (where Children’s Education runs programs with up to 100 kids at a time!) and the program staff and volunteers must focus on outreach and marketing to connect with patients who might not know about the program yet.

Students on Board in Large Numbers
Wild About Nature’s pilot year involved recruiting volunteers to help lead programs and engage children and families at Mott. Student interest was overwhelming and the volunteer team is now composed of 15 University of Michigan college students. Volunteer Alex Meilhac says, “I got involved because I was looking for a non-traditional way to volunteer and make a difference in our community. What I love about Wild About Nature is that it strives to help young patients and their families to take a break from being in the hospital and enjoy the soothing effects of nature. The most rewarding part is knowing that we are doing something new, something that has never been done before at Mott Hospital and that has the potential to impact the recovery of patients who need an avenue of escape from the stress of being in a clinical setting.”

Volunteers and Mott staff have worked to design programs that are more flexible and can be adapted to a range of ages and abilities while adjusting to the fluid nature of the Family Center, in which families come and go continuously. This open and flexible mindset has enabled more children to get involved during the program period and to feel engaged. According to Wild About Nature volunteer Alex Kolenda, “It is super great getting to know the kids and teaching them a thing or two about nature. At the same time, I love being able to learn so much about nature myself! I enjoy volunteering for the program because I feel like I am learning so much—about both ecology and the environment these kids experience while in the hospital.” The volunteers’ devotion has allowed the emergence of weekday hikes, a more informal way of enjoying the Arboretum and knowing what one is seeing throughout.

In addition to providing weekday hikes for children and their families, Wild About Nature also offers weekly hikes for postpartum women from the Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital (which is combined with Mott). According to Piazza, the hikes fulfilled a need that had been there all along. “Mothers had wanted this before and were looking for something like this. [It’s] almost like permission to take a break.”

Moving forward, there is much potential for a program like this in the adult hospital, since everyone can heal and find respite in nature, not just women and children. Says Piazza, “We need to make this happen in the adult hospital … within the next year, this will only grow! I feel like there are ways we can make this happen and help people enjoy this resource.” Volunteer Alex Kolenda feels similarly, saying “as time goes on, the program will have more and more of a [positive] reputation at the hospital and will therefore have more and more participation. I can see more university students wanting to get involved, too.”

Within the next few years, Wild About Nature hopes to continue its programming and spread awareness throughout the hospital and greater community about the resources offered by the neighboring Nichols Arboretum. To learn more about Wild About Nature, please write wildaboutnature.staff@umich.edu.

Rebecca Liebschutz, from Albany, N.Y., graduated from U-M this May with degrees in Philosophy, Political Science, and Economics and Program in the Environment. She is interested in working in sustainable development and agriculture policy. Rebecca is working as a children’s programs intern funded by the Ann Arbor Woman’s National Farm and Garden Association.

Elise Matatall, originally from Denver, CO, is a graduate student in the U-M School of Social Work. She has been fortunate to participate in a specialized child welfare scholarship program at U-M. Her work-study position with children’s education and the Wild About Nature project have been immensely helpful in informing her practice as a child and family therapist, where she often incorporates the healing power of nature. 

Rebecca Liebschutz (left) and Elise Matatall
in front of Willow Pond at Matthaei.