Doing what comes naturally

Janice Kelley shares her love of the outdoors with local families

By Jessica Laskey
August 2018

Janice Kelley is one of those rare people who can point to an actual epiphany that led her to her current career as a naturalist, storyteller and founder of Nature Detectives, a program that brings hands-on, object-based field studies to local schools.

“I was driving to Point Reyes with the windows down,” recalls Kelley, who originally hails from LA County but moved to Sacramento in 1995 just before the birth of her son. “I could hear the water and see the green mountains and I thought, ‘I want to do something to help people realize that this is a miracle.’”

Kelley has always loved the outdoors, thanks in part to a weekly routine from childhood when her parents would take the family out for a ride every Sunday to explore museums, parks and beaches and go camping. But prior to her 

Point Reyes epiphany, Kelley didn’t realize that she could actually have a career in the great outdoors. “I always thought you had to grow up and work in an office,” admits Kelley, who put in time behind a desk in organization communications, community outreach, training, research, writing and editing for more than 20 years before a chance encounter with a book of Joseph Cornell poems changed her trajectory for good. She picked up the Cornell book as part of a display at a Maidu interpretive center, flipped to the back to find out more, and then a lightbulb went off.

“In the back of the book, there was a listing for the National Association for Interpretation,” Kelley recalls. “I didn’t know what ‘interpretation’ meant as a job, so I went to the site and signed up for a regional conference. While I was there, I realized that these are my people. This is who I am.”

NAI is a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to advancing the profession of heritage interpretation. It serves approximately 5,000 members in the United States, Canada and more than 30 other nations who work at parks, museums, nature centers, zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums, historical and cultural sites, commercial tour companies and theme parks. Once Kelley realized that she could merge her love of nature with her love of community outreach, she was hooked.

In 2006, she enrolled in Sacramento State’s master of science degree program in the Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Administration with the goal of building family programs based on environmental education and conservation. She won a scholarship to the NAI national convention that same year and immersed herself in the interpretation field by leading tours at local sites like the Nimbus Fish Hatchery and Sutter’s Fort, and using her writing skills on wayside panels, feature stories, videos, fact sheets and blogs.

In 2008, Kelley joined the staff of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, where she served as the program coordinator for the LEAF Steward Program, which won the award for Best Urban Forestry Education Program from the California Urban Forests Council in 2009 under her leadership. But upon graduating from Sac State with her master’s in 2013, Kelley realized that she missed sharing her love of nature in a more direct way.

To remedy that, she started the blog “Mornings at Fair Oaks Bridge,” which shares nearly daily observations of the sights and sounds of one of her favorite places. And in January of this year, Kelley founded Nature Detectives, a series of field-based weekly programs and activities for students K-6 to develop meaningful relationships with the natural world.

“Kids are in such a structured environment at school that they never get a chance to free-play outside,” says Kelley, who uses hands-on activities like measuring leaves, hunting for animal tracks and recording scientific observations to both engage imaginations and meet Common Core requirements. “Kids should be able to get outside and explore and have the freedom to learn, to be active and investigate.”

Leonardo da Vinci K-8 School in Hollywood Park, Genevieve Didion K-8 in the Greenhaven/Pocket area and Harry Dewey Fundamental Elementary School in Fair Oaks piloted Kelley’s program this past schoolyear and the result was a resounding success. She plans to expand to more sites next year, as well as beef up the Nature Detectives website with printable lessons, online quizzes and a blog.

“I would love to be a resource for parents,” says Kelley, who has collected enough nature books, naturalist objects and stuffed animals over the past few decades to run her own interpretive center. “My ultimate goal is to offer family programs where parents can engage in nature with their kids and learn from their enthusiasm.”

And maybe they’ll experience some epiphanies of their own.

For more information about Nature Detectives, contact Kelley at (916) 965-5246 or outdoorjan@att.net, or visit naturedetectivesusa.com.

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