Program Growing Due to its Nature Focus and Inclusive Model
By Joan Goodchild
As many parents often lament, children don’t spend as much time outdoors as previous generations. Gone are the days when kids were sent outside and told to come when the streetlights turned on. Much of the time spent playing in the woods and in neighbors’ yards has been replaced with organized activities like sports or music lessons, and play time is often screen time.
But a program in Paxton aims to change that. Turn Back Time is a farm and nature-focused program for children that offers classes, preschool, summer camp and after-school activities with a simple mission: to get kids and parents reconnected with nature. Founder Lisa Burris started TBT when she began to notice how beneficial nature was for her own children. A mom of five, one of her youngest was struggling with behavioral issues when she made the connection.
“I noticed that when he played with kids that he normally had conflict with, he would do fine when they were outside,” she said.
Eventually her interest in getting her children to spend more time playing outdoors led her to find the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. “In it, he states that most children don’t suffer from attention deficit disorder, they suffer from nature deficit disorder,” she said. “That really opened my eyes to how important time outdoors is to kids. And nature is vanishing from childhood.”
Burris decided to take a massive chance and convinced her husband to sell their home and purchase a farm in Paxton to launch the TBT program. Their offerings have been running since 2012 and growing each year. While one of the original missions of the program was to serve children with developmental and emotional issues, TBT attracts all types of children, said Burris.
“It is an integrated program,” she explained. “Every program we run has staff for special needs and we try not to say no very often. We have three rules: safety, respect and responsibility.”
The property is a sustainable working farm with trails throughout and with offerings for kids as young as toddler-aged and as old as 14, and with activities like animal care and lots of time spent in the woods. There are also offerings families can attend together. What’s essential, said Burris, is risk-based play and taking chances.
“Risk is essential, risk is beneficial,” said Burris. “It is essential for kids to be able to grow up and know how to care for themselves. If you have a 3-year-old that never gets skinned knees, you end up with 17-year-old that drives car the 100 miles an hour.”
For Kathy Fratus, a Worcester-based parent whose son, Henry, age 5, has been attending the preschool for more than a year, the experience has been transformative.
“He never says he doesn’t want to go to school, and he said that all the time at his last school,” said Fratus. “There was some concern from me in the beginning, I wondered ‘Is this too risky? How much guidance will they have?’ But his confidence gave me confidence. The risk play and outdoor-risk play has benefited him so much.”
Fratus said the daily lessons that take place outdoors include reading to the children and incorporating math and science into their activities. The class includes children with all kinds of development and behavioral backgrounds, which Fratus said is another wonderful aspect of the program.
“There is no separation, everyone is in it together. Regardless of a diagnosis or not, they are all together, figuring it out.”
Burris said TBT will continue to serve children of all abilities and backgrounds. What turned out to be a huge financial risk has begun to pay off with strong enrollment. The summer camp was full by April last year, Burris noted, because everyone is welcome.
“A lot of programs that don’t offer special needs aspect,” she said. “Those are kids that need it the most and have the least amount of access.”
As they move into the future, TBT is in the final stages of completing a 2400 square-foot barn, which will include an educational space and allow Burris to provide the same level of services in winter as in summer.
“We want to increase the level of nature exposure with all of our programs and increase the hours throughout the winter. This will help us do that, because we really feel this is a need in the community that we’re trying to meet.”