Over the last 40-plus years, Wood Lake Nature Center has been home to a host of wildlife. Birds, turtles, frogs, fish, and many other critters spend their days at the nature reserve in Richfield. And recently, so have babies and toddlers—thanks to an innovative occupational therapy program started by Amber Scherkenbach.

The name of the program: Momma Earth. And it’s one of just a handful of nature-based occupational therapy programs in the Twin Cities metro area.

The program offers direct occupational therapy services to kids and parents who need additional support outside a clinical setting. Services range from evaluations to setting goals, and parents can sign up for sessions like nature play groups, “Muddy Monday Play,” and “Rocks n’ Play” for as little as $30 per session.

Amber started Momma Earth after spending seven years working in occupational therapy in a local clinic. After a number of miscarriages, Amber had her own baby in 2020 and dealt with postpartum anxiety and depression. Amber tried local mom groups, but found that  she wasn’t getting what she was looking for, so she started exploring how she could pair her love for nature with her background in OT to help herself—and others. Momma Earth was born.

“We’re in a society right now that’s completely overwhelmed by screen time for kids.  Parents with little kiddos understand this, but it’s hard to go against the screen,” says Amber. “Kiddos need to get outside more and they need less screen time. But many parents are just a little unsure how to do that. Momma Earth programs help show parents how to support their child’s development through nature and guided play, and provide them with ideas [for activities] to do at home between visits.”

The most popular program so far: the “Tots’n’Trees” nature play group for 1-3-year-olds.  Parents spend time interacting with their toddlers in natural settings, and can learn about simple nature-based activities to incorporate into daily life. Amber stresses that these are classes for parents and kids to engage in together, helping to enrich the child and at the same time to educate the parents.

“The ideal participants for these sessions are babies and toddlers whose parents are willing to learn new ideas and take them outside; kiddos and parents who have an innate curiosity for nature,” says Amber.

How did she land at Wood Lake in Richfield? Amber says she dabbled with other nature centers and parks in the southwest metro, but “something just clicked at Wood Lake.”

“Wood Lake has a quiet, intimate feel,” says Amber. “That fits the needs of the program as I want kiddos and parents to enter nature and feel engulfed by it.”

It’s also very accessible to Amber (who lives nearby) and to southwest metro moms and parents, who are her primary customers.  The nature play area at Wood Lake doesn’t hurt either, with a great sandbox and climbing space.

In the end, the program has huge mental health benefits for kiddos (and parents). Getting outdoors in nature has been proven to have a positive impact on stress hormones, vs. the over-stimulation kids face being connected to screens for much of the day.

“All this technology we’re using each day, it costs money,” says Amber. “But nature doesn’t.”

Learn more about Momma Earth and the programs at Wood Lake Nature Center here.