Amanda Wilkinson, a public use specialist at the Southern Arkansas Refuges Complex, is using a concept she calls Refuge Therapy to help 13 preschoolers with developmental delays flourish.

The program seeks to introduce the children to the sights, sounds and smells of nature while helping them to grow mentally and socially. All Refuge Therapy participants are pupils at the Carousel School in Crossett, AR. Part of the school’s mission is to “strive to effectively transition developmentally delayed children into a regular kindergarten classroom setting with positive expectations.”

Wilkinson conceived of Refuge Therapy last summer after the school took a field trip to the complex, which includes Felsenthal, Overflow and Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuges. During a tour of the visitor center, it became apparent that the children were apprehensive.

“Because of the kids’ anxiety, it was clear that every child could use a hand to hold for the remainder of the trip,” says Wilkinson. That day ended with a nature walk on which the children were encouraged to touch the bark of the trees, pick up leaves and gum balls, look over the pier at the pond, and smell the wildflowers in the butterfly garden. Some children did; most did not.

“The hurdles for them were getting off the paved trail, touching the dirt-covered objects, trusting the pier so they could take a glance, or trusting that the dragonflies that hovered over the garden were harmless,” says Wilkinson. “At that point, I realized that many of these kids never had an outdoor experience like this. I felt compelled to offer more trips, to encourage the connection with nature and fill them with positive reinforcement when it comes to the natural world.”

That field trip and a few others led Wilkinson to develop Refuge Therapy into a year-round program. Monthly visits that bring refuge nature to the Carousel School classroom during the school year and summer field trips that bring the kids to refuge land are the backbone of the concept.

There is an “outdoor corner” in the classroom, which includes a large paper tree and a touch table that allows the children to engage with nature while they’re indoors.

Refuge Therapy has given the children a new perspective.

“From the very first time until now, I’ve noticed the increased awareness the kids have gained for the world around them,” says Wilkinson. “They are stopping to hear the birds sing, asking about various plants and flowers they find, and are excited to talk about it all during my next visit. The word ‘nature’ is now a part of their vocabulary, and they are constantly connecting it to all things.”

Perhaps the most noticeable development has been in one girl who at the start of Refuge Therapy was terrified to be outside. Now, she will hold a bucket full of live crickets, is excited to take nature walks and is eager to discover new things.

But it’s not just the children who have been impacted by the concept.

“As a mother myself to two small children, I find it fascinating that their minds are like little sponges, soaking in everything around them,” says Wilkinson. “For me it has been an awesome experience to not only introduce nature to these children but to be there during such an instrumental time in their lives.”

Katherine Taylor is a digital content specialist in the Southeast Region office in Atlanta.