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Distinguished Dozen: Schuyler a champion of nature for children

Standing at the base of Fox Mountain in the family nature center she fostered near Crozet, Carolyn Schuyler drifts back to recent memories of the busloads of children who routinely relish this experience.

“Watching the students getting off the bus and seeing their reaction to the mountain and the realization that they have this huge space that’s theirs and is designed for them is just consistently good and amazing,” says Schuyler.

This is Wildrock, 28 acres of verdant land, forest, fields and creeks—all devoted to the idea that the development of mentally and physically healthy children depends on play and nature. Here they get both.

“One of best ways you can build a high-functioning child is by letting them play outside,” says Schuyler, 53. “There’s a really strong evidence base for getting children into nature playing.”

Last year, the American Pediatric Association declared a mental health crisis in childhood. Meanwhile, a variety of academic papers have found positive associations between nature and physical and mental health, according to the Children & Nature Network, a clearinghouse of research and advocacy and a trusted resource for Schuyler, who began her career as a play and family therapist.

Seven years ago, Schuyler presented the idea for Wildrock at pitch night at the annual Tom Tom innovation festival. She won, and two years later, in 2017, opened Wildrock on land donated by her family.

“Both nature connection and free play are critical for healthy child development, and both are endangered in childhood today,” says Schuyler. “So that really motivated me to start Wildrock.”

Wildrock is both this Crozet-area nature center and a non-profit that meets children where they are: in their schools, their neighborhoods, after-school centers, and agency side lots. Even before the pandemic, Schuyler says there was a crisis caused by too much structure and didacticism in American schools.

“The research is saying the average American child only spends about seven minutes in true free play outdoors and several hours in front of a screen,” says Schuyler.

She says this situation leads to higher rates of depression and anxiety. And a green space for underprivileged children promotes equity.

“Connection to nature is such a part of mental health, and it tends to be overlooked,” she says.

At Wildrock, kids wade and catch minnows in a mountain stream, play in sand, make art with Virginia slate and produce plays at a little outdoor stage. And Schuyler says that play really is the natural language of children.

“They don’t do talk-therapy,” she says. “They work out their emotional challenges through the expressive opportunity of free play.”

This isn’t Schuyler’s first local non-profit. She helped start the Women’s Initiative, a mental health center that serves women regardless of ability to pay, and she was its first program director. She says she got particularly interested in trauma treatment because trauma can cause depression and anxiety.

“The natural world was coming up again and again,” says Schuyler. “I just feel really sad and honestly alarmed at the degree of which children in this generation are being deprived of the kinds of experiences that build emotional resilience.”

Wildrock has firmed up so many links to local families and schools that it now serves over 15,000 people a year and employs a staff of seven. Schuyler plans to hand over the reins to the person who has recently been leading it with her. Meg Phillips will become the sole executive director on January 1.

“Things have gone so well with her and a couple of other great new hires that it became apparent to me to it was really time for me to start focusing on some special projects to advance the mission and to allow the new team of leaders to run with deepening and expanding the core programs,” says Schuyler.

The University of Virginia recently invited Schuyler to be a visiting scholar. The environmental thought and practice major co-taught a class outdoors in one of the historic Pavilion gardens.

And Schuyler says she plans to devote more time to research and to writing about nature connections and nature play given the ongoing public health crisis. Already, she has published a study with a William & Mary professor and plans to soon unveil a new mobile nature play laboratory.

Friend and fellow professional counselor Trudi Goodwin expresses confidence that Schuyler’s contributions will continue.

“She’s passionate about educating people,” says Goodwin. “Her life’s work is serving others, and Wildrock is just a manifestation of that.”


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