Leader Travis Williams has worked for the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway since its 2000 inception and has been thoroughly involved with the nonprofit’s development. Williams uses experience in business development, nonprofit management, strategic planning and partnerships to drive the center’s growth and advancement.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway Executive Director Travis Williams
: A leader knows how to motivate people, sets and accomplishes goals, and understands how to get things done effectively and efficiently. Leaders demonstrate attributes of courage, creativity and entrepreneurial energy. A strong leader is capable of transforming a vision into reality. Most importantly, I think, a true leader knows how to take the steps that are necessary to ensure an effective and cohesive team.
Another way to look at leadership is to look for certain characteristics or qualities in an individual, like knowing how to cast a vision and build trust in groups, knowing how and when to take a risk and not being afraid to do it. Leaders know how to communicate, listen and keep an open mind. They have passion and integrity. They know their own strengths and weaknesses and believe in empowerment.
I also believe that leaders know how to choose the right people to be on their team and they know how to say thank you to show them that they are appreciated.
What is your dream for kids?
Ultimately, I want to see all children be happy, healthy and full of opportunity. In our work, we focus on the idea that a child that is connected to the natural world is going to be a smarter, healthier and happier child. It is important for everyone to understand that in order for children to fully develop cognitively, physically and socially, they need the free playtime in the outdoors. It is important for everyone to understand that in order for children to fully develop cognitively, physically and socially, they need the free playtime in the outdoors.
A child’s imagination, their creativity, problem solving skills, their curiosity – and their overall health – are impacted by the amount of time they spend playing in a natural setting
I hope, wish and dream that all kids are given the opportunity to explore and experience the outdoors daily because children are happier, healthier, and smarter when they spend time playing and interacting outdoors regularly.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
A significant investment in the education of children with a real focus on early childhood, along with a strong comprehensive focus on children’s health, would certainly move the needle for the social sector. The overall health of children is a primary issue of focus for positive societal change. Children are our future and we see early childhood education as a connection to the outdoors. We have to invest our resources in their development to create opportunities for growth.
Our specific interest in the social sector work in Michigan focuses on connecting children with nature for their health, development, and overall well-being. The most important thing to know about that is that it’s not the children who need to change, it’s the adults. Parents, caregivers, educators and administrators all need education.
We work with them here to show them how they can take children outdoors and help them establish a bond with nature because children really need to be outdoors interacting with their environment. They need to be where they can get dirty. They need outdoor, natural free-play – and that means unstructured time where they are not being told what to play and what to play with and instead just using natural parts and pieces of the environment around them. Free play stimulates their inquiry and their sense of discovery and wonder. Most educators will tell you that hands-on learning is the best way to learn. This very experience, this connection with nature, is fundamental to our mission.
Our playgrounds today tend to be more stark landscapes with a lot of the green stuff removed so that it doesn’t have to be maintained, so kids are forced to play on hard, man-made structures. I know it is safer for kids to fall on rubber than on a hard ground – and in no way do we ever discourage safety – but I grew up climbing trees and it didn’t kill me. I know it is safer for kids to fall on rubber than on a hard ground – and in no way do we ever discourage safety – but I grew up climbing trees and it didn’t kill me.
You learn to climb, swing on a rope, you make a fort, you learn to take risks and that helps you grow into a rounded adult. It’s okay to put your hands in the dirt and play with rocks and sticks and play in the woods. It makes our immune systems stronger and helps to keep weight under control. The rise in today’s obesity rates and nearsightedness mainly comes from staring at screens. Research shows that the average child in America spends 55 hours a week in front of a screen. If you do the math, that’s eight hours a day. Eight hours.
How do you know you’re making progress?
We have engaged in a collaborative partnership with Hope College to help us evaluate our program to insure that the work we are doing, and to insure the funds being contributed towards our work, are maximized. So, both the general surveys conducted by our staff that we focus on the children and the families who participate in our programs, along with the comprehensive research-based study that [Hope College Psychology Professor] Dr. Sonja Trent-Brown conducts help provide us with the appropriate measures to evaluate our programming success. This research-based evaluation program is an ideal evaluation process to assess the impact of our work.
We are testing, through pre- and post- evaluations, to see if our program enrichment work has any impact on a child’s interest in the outdoors, self-efficacy, knowledge and awareness of the natural world and family lifestyle – the time spent outside, time spent in play and the family value placed on time outside. Because we have an independent, research-based, evaluation, we can be assured whether our work is actually providing added value to the greater Holland area.
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the collaborative nature of our project. We have numerous partners that have stepped up to support and invest in the success of our program. From the evaluation support from Hope College to the many schools and organizations that support our project goals, our Nature for a Healthy Future - Connecting Children & Nature program is truly a community-wide program with full investment from the community.
What perceptions, messages or historical influences create the most significant barriers to engaging Michigan citizens in helping vulnerable children?
Perhaps it’s the belief that vulnerable children are only minorities living in decaying urban areas. In reality, they also are in cities, small towns, suburbs and rural areas. Even wealthy children living in privileged environments are subject to nature deficiency because they have all the stream time resources that lead to an indoor sedentary lifestyle.