Connecting Children to Nature via The Virginia Wildlife Grant Program

Students at Linwood Holton Elementary School discover birds in their schoolyard thanks to a 2016 Virginia Wildlife Grant. Photo by Meghan Marchetti.

By Jessica Ruthenberg, Watchable Wildlife Biologist and Tom Wilcox, Director of Engagement, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

In this Year of the Bird, Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (DGIF) encourages you to introduce a child to nature to help foster their love for wild animals and wild places. A single encounter can spark a lifelong passion. Experiences in nature, such as birding and wildlife viewing, are memorable and enriching—the thrill of finding wild animals in their natural habitats and the awe of watching how they interact with one another and their environment. The entryway into such activities are relatively easy and low cost—kids can view nature from anywhere; the wonderment can begin at home, in a schoolyard or along a trail or stream. The DGIF is proud to help connect children to the outdoors through our Virginia Wildlife Grant Program, a partnership with the Wildlife Foundation of Virginia.

Over the last 4 years, the Virginia Wildlife Grant Program has supported 128 projects connecting kids to the outdoors, totaling $170,000 and benefiting nearly 40,000 children in Virginia, from our coast to the mountains and included kids with special needs.  Wildlife viewing has been one of the Grant Program’s major areas of connection and support. It was the Program’s most funded activity in 2017 at nearly $20,000 supporting 10 projects. Previous grant recipients in this category have included the “The Sounds of the Birds Study” at Linwood Holton Elementary in Richmond, “Sounds of the James Eagle Tour” for Virginia Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments, and an “Outdoor Club for monthly Saturday morning field trips” at Belvedere Elementary School in Fairfax County.

“The Sound of Birds Study” was funded in Fall 2016 at Richmond’s Linwood Holton Elementary School with a focus on providing their students an opportunity to get outside to hear and see the birds in their own schoolyard, and also spend time drawing their observations.  These simple connections could lead to lifelong adventures.

“Sounds of the James Eagle Tour” with Virginia Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments was a great adventure for children and their parents along the James River, led by Captain Mike Ostrander of Discover the James. Tom Wilcox, DGIF Director of Engagement, enjoyed accompanying the families on their field trip. Reflecting back on the experience, Wilcox shared, “I learned that visually impaired kids really ‘see’ nature in a very different way, and the appreciation runs deep when you invest in them. I learned from parents the challenges of raising kids with visual challenges and observed that nature brings people together – an added benefit!”

Belvedere Elementary School of Fairfax County enjoying a Saturday morning nature walk at Huntley Meadows Park as part of their Outdoor Club, a 2016 Grant Program recipient. Stacey Evers, Environmental Educator at Belvedere shared a highlight of the walk: “a great blue heron suddenly took flight, soaring over the wetlands and people….One fifth-grader talked about this moment the rest of the year.”

Belvedere Elementary School in Fairfax County created an Outdoor Club, in which they offered students and their families an opportunity to go on nature walks and view wildlife at local parks on the first Saturday of every month. They averaged 57 participants per month, most of which were students K-5, plus staff and their families. Stacey Evers, Environmental Educator at Belvedere, reported on the program:

“The Belvedere Outdoor Club turned out to be one of the most powerful programs we’ve ever offered….[It] connected youth and adults to our beautiful natural surroundings, and it also connected us to one another. I can’t think of a more effective way to connect children – or adults – to the outdoors than by giving them regular, positive experiences in nature with loved ones and by creating a community whose identity is being outside together.”

Ways to Help Take a Child to Nature

  • The 2018 Virginia Wildlife Grant Program is accepting applications now through August 31st. Do you know a school, non-profit organization, or government entity in need of support for a children’s birding or wildlife viewing program? Please pass along this opportunity to them! Additional outdoor activities are also eligible.  To learn more and apply click here.
  • Interested in supporting the Virginia Wildlife Grant Program? Revenue for the grant program is generated by merchandise sales at, fundraising events, and private donations.
  • Looking for a Place to Share Nature with Kids? The Virginia Birding & Wildlife Trail is your guide to finding the best spots for wildlife viewing in the Commonwealth. Find a wildlife viewing site near you by clicking here.


  • August 16, 2018