There’s evidence that getting kids outdoors at an early age — and then keeping them there — provides more than great short-term fun and long-term memories.

There’s data that shows outdoor exposure to nature makes kids smarter, better adapted and more independent, evidence that outdoor play improves creativity.

But outdoor exposure also comes with a warning: It may make kids dirty, hungry and tired.

River Rovers gather around Ryley Oliver to get potting soil for the pots they would plant milkweed seeds in. Milkweed is beneficial to butterflies, especially monarch butterflies, whose caterpillars feed on the plant’s leaves. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
River Rovers gather around Ryley Oliver to get potting soil for the pots they would plant milkweed seeds in. Milkweed is beneficial to butterflies, especially monarch butterflies, whose caterpillars feed on the plant’s leaves. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

That’s the concept behind the River Rovers Nature Playgroup at the Lake Superior Estuarium on Barker’s Island in Superior. The program is tasked with advocating for and preserving the natural values of the St. Louis River estuary — the largest tributary of Lake Superior and one of the most important fish and wildlife areas around the lake.

“We asked ourselves what could we do to connect people to the St. Louis River, and we saw that there really wasn't anything for young children to connect them to the river and to the lake,” Deanna Erickson, education director for the Estuarium, told the News Tribune.

Liam Raymond, 4, looks at flowers during a River Rovers nature walk on Barker’s Island recently. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
Liam Raymond, 4, looks at flowers during a River Rovers nature walk on Barker’s Island recently. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

It’s hoped not only that kids with a connection to nature will be better people when they grow up, but that as adults they may retain that connection to the outdoors and become advocates for places like the St. Louis River estuary.

The summer program for kids ages 3-7 started June 20 and runs every Thursday morning through Aug. 29. There’s no need to pre-register; just show up at 10 a.m. ready to have fun. And it’s free.



With a magnifying lens in her hand, a young River Rover wonders through a flower garden on Barker’s Island. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
With a magnifying lens in her hand, a young River Rover wonders through a flower garden on Barker’s Island. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Kids must be accompanied by an adult parent or guardian. They can stop by for one or all the Thursday sessions throughout the summer. In addition to Erickson the program has two staff interns. There are nature activities, crafts, games, snacks and stories are led by professional education staff. (Erickson has a degree and career in environmental education.)

While there are more formal kids’ nature programs at places like Hartley Nature Center, and longer-term outdoor day camps like Chester Bowl Adventure Camp and the YMCA’s Camp Kitchigami, River Rovers is free and informal.



River Rovers instructor Ryley Oliver ties to tag a program participant during a game of Flower, Flower. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
River Rovers instructor Ryley Oliver ties to tag a program participant during a game of Flower, Flower. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Perhaps the best times, Erickson said, are those spent literally in the estuary.

“Kids love water,” Erickson said. “Their expressions of just sheer joy when they are in water are pretty great.”

Generally between eight and 20 kids show up each Thursday morning depending on the weather. They stay on Barker’s Island utilizing beaches, grassy, marshy and wooded areas.

“We do a lot of splashing in the water. We catch fish. We catch bugs. We look at flowers,’’ Erickson said. “But we don’t go to the playground. We figure they can do that any time.”

The River Rovers program, now in its sixth year, has remained popular, and officials are considering adding a weekend program for kids of parents who work during the day.



River Rovers instructor Ryley Oliver reads to children in the program during snack time. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
River Rovers instructor Ryley Oliver reads to children in the program during snack time. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

The Estuarium is overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with help from the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant program and gets federal funds for programming and operations. It’s a member of the National Estuarine Reserve System, a network of 29 reserves across the United States designated for long-term research on coastal resources and the human populations those resources support. The Lake Superior Reserve is one of only two on the Great Lakes.

If you go

What: River Rovers Nature Playgroup.

When: 10 a.m. to noon every Thursday through Aug. 29.

Where: Lake Superior Estuarium, located at 3 Marina Drive on Barker's Island in Superior.

How much: Free and open to all kids ages 3-7. No pre-registration needed.

More: For more information contact Deanna Erickson at 715-399-4086 or deanna.erickson@uwex.edu.