Prior to its May 20 committee meeting, Hopewell Township celebrated its designation as a 2018 Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. “Environmental stewardship is a core value for many of our residents,” said Mayor Kristin McLaughlin. “This designation recognizes the hard work of our Environmental Commission and the passion we have for keeping our township healthy and green. Trees absorb carbon, clean our air, and provides habitat for wildlife.”

The township joins both boroughs in this status, making all three Hopewell Valley municipalities Tree City USA participants. Trees and forests not only add health and beauty to our surroundings, but also are essential to our health and development. The importance of having trees and open space throughout our Valley cannot be exaggerated.

Contact with nature is not just a luxury but is crucial to healthy child development. A cursory search results in a number of studies proving the health benefits of contact with nature, for child and adult alike, including lowered blood pressure, stress reduction, reduced obesity and improved ability to concentrate.

Yet, equally important is nature’s role in spiritual development and, I would argue, the sense of joy, wonder, and connection to the earth, one experiences when fully immersed.

Enjoying nature is central to human development. Older individuals can all share childhood memories of natural experiences. Yet in the last few decades, fewer individuals are getting outside, and that is a shame.

Fortunately, the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance has coordinated local environmentally-friendly organizations to provide a sampling of outdoor experiences in an event known as Hopewell Valley Come Outside & Play, that takes place June 6 through June 8 throughout the Valley.

Heidi Kahme, HVMA coordinator, shared that Hopewell Valley Come Outside and Play started in 2010 after school district staff members approached the Alliance with their idea of a community event to get students outside. They had attended professional development that reviewed the book Last Child in The Woods which suggests many children suffer from a sort of Nature Deficit Disorder.

“Studies show that there are tremendous benefits to being outside in nature. It’s been said that a dose of nature is equal to a dose of Adderall,” Kahme said. “One example is that students perform better in class after recess.”

While improved health and well-being are obvious benefits, what makes Hopewell Valley Come Outside and Play so unique is that it takes advantage of the Hopewell Valley landscape.

“We are fortunate to have so many outdoor spaces.” Kahme said. “It makes sense to get people out just to know that these places exist, and take advantage of where they live.”

One program experience was called Happy Hour in the Bear Tavern Outdoor Learning Area. It invites participants to take in the sights, smells and textures of nature, while being guided through simple and fun yoga and meditation.

Other choices include opportunities like hiking in the woods, a 3-mile walk on the Lawrence-Hopewell Trail, wading through streams, fishing, outdoor art projects, citizen science studies like counting songbirds or examining pond organisms and more. Paws in the Preserve even allows you to enjoy nature with your best four-legged friends.

While you certainly don’t need organized activities to reap the benefits of being outdoors, sometimes it is better to learn the way around with an expert or guide, then visit again on your own. The vast majority of program locations offer year-round public access.

Participating organizations include Art Sparks, Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space, HV Arts Council, HVYMCA, Howell Living History Farm, Lawrence Hopewell Trail, Mercer County Park Commission, Painted Oak Nature School, Pennington Farmers Market, Pennington Public Library, RomYoga, Sourland Conservancy, Sourland Cycles, STRIVE PTO, The Watershed and Twirl Toy Shop.

As Valley residents, we take pride that our three municipalities are Tree Cities, and we explore and connect with our lands. For more information visit hvalliance.org/hvcop.html. Note programs that look like fun, then unplug. Get yourself and your family outside. Your body and mind will thank you.

Take a deep breath and appreciate… Nature in the Valley.

Lisa Wolff is executive director of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. Email: lwolff@fohvos.org.