Check out this backpack: Library launches outdoor exploration program

Not only can youngsters check out American Girl dolls, bike locks, not to mention books, from the Milford Public Library, now they can also use their library cards to check out backpacks filled with items to help them explore the outdoors.

One backpack includes a cool compass.

Another features a butterfly net.

There also is a telescope, a guide to seashells that can be found along local beaches, and a small tin bucket.

The library, starting Monday, will offer four nature-themed backpacks including coastal, woodland, astronomy and seasonal themes, each stocked with exploration tools available for checkout for one week using a public library card.

Each backpack contains tools for youngsters to help explore nature, and field guides and other written material to tie in the library side of this new outdoor program called The Outdoor Project: Library Backpack Exploration Program. There are journals, with prompts, so children can write down what they have seen or experienced.

Makayla O’Keefe, who worked on the project as part of her participation in the Milford Parent Leadership Program, said she hopes to connect children to science and nature exploration and encourage them to become citizen scientists while enjoying fun activities.

Bottom line, she’d like to see them have fun outside.

A Milford native, O’Keefe grew up enjoying the outdoors. She and her father would often go late in the day to the Audubon to explore the wetlands and seashore.

“I think that’s kind of lost on this generation,” she said.

Her two children, Charlotte, 4, and Noah, 7, attended a nature program in Ansonia, and O’Keefe was really impressed with it.

“So it’s kind of been a mission to bring this kind of program to Milford,” she said.

REI donated the backpacks, the Audubon donated items for one of the backpacks, and the Junior Women’s Club donated $200.

The $200 paid for the plastic tweezers, magnifying glass, the star guide and other things inside the packs, including a tin bucket.

“Give a child a bucket, and he will pack it up with things, like rocks and sticks,” O’Keefe said.

Also in the backpacks are trail guides that Milford Open Space Manager Steve Johnson provided: They detail hikes that can be found in MIlford.

O’Keefe said books nurture learning and inner imagination while play in nature engages the sense of curiosity and exploration critical to brain development. Putting both of these essential childhood experiences in one place is a simple idea, but one that could have a profound impact on the community.

The backpacks are meant to encourage families to explore local parks and trails, to build outdoor confidence, to meet new friends, to get exercise, to spend quality time together outdoors and to relax and have fun.

“Children will learn about animal tracking, the coastal ecosystems and how to identify constellations,” O’Keefe said. “Students will collect data, make observations, and record findings in nature journals included in the backpack.”

Her son Noah has been waiting to get a look at the backpacks and the items his mother filled them with. Noah, quite familiar with the outdoors, said one of his favorite places to spend time outdoors is Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, but he enjoys Milford spots, too, like Mondo Ponds.

“The backyard is my favorite place,” he said, prompting his mother to point out that by using the outdoor backpacks, families and their children might discover a new world in their own backyards.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Children’s Librarian Suzanne Harrison-Thomas about the new backpack program.

“It made me happy that Makayla thought of us,” she said.

The American Girl program, which allows residents to check out dolls for a week, has been going really well and Harrison-Thomas thinks the backpack program will go just as well.

“This is even more gender neutral,” Harrison-Thomas said.

She said many libraries are circulating non-traditional items these days, and this is a great example.

She expects there will be wear and tear on the items in the backpacks, but she said the Friends of the Library have offered to help replenish the items as needed.

This may seem an odd time of year to introduce the program. But O’Keefe says not so.

There may be snow on the ground and it may be cold outside, but that’s okay.

“I tell my kids there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” she said.