Claire Coco likes to see children who are growing up in an age of smartphones and video games get outside occasionally to breathe fresh air.
And from her position as executive director of Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center, Coco tries to come up with creative ways to lure them from their couches.
There were plenty of kids in the mix on Saturday as the BREC park celebrated its 19th anniversary during a free, daylong event that drew more than 700 people.
They explored the park’s roughly milelong trails in the cypress swamp, looking for pictures of opossums, squirrels and foxes pinned to trees, and occasionally saw real ones.
“Our worst nightmare is people standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, looking at the Grand Canyon through their phones,” Coco said.
Coco, a self-described “nature geek,” has been in the nature business since she was 14, when she gave nature walks as a Girl Scout.
She too often sees children coming to the park for their first nature walk — a far cry from her childhood, where children were nearly always outside, from “sunup to sundown.”
But while Coco and her staff sometimes lament the “sedentary lifestyle” brought about by technology, she acknowledges that some aspects of that technology, like social media, have been a boon for a park looking to stay relevant as other kid-friendly attractions pop up elsewhere in Baton Rouge.
Some of the park’s most successful programs — like “Rockin’ in the Swamp,” which featured a rock-climbing wall, mineral exhibits and stone tower building stations — exploded once they were advertised on Facebook.
Coco said that event drew more than 1,700 people.
Rebecca Blazek, a Baton Rouge resident and Louisiana native, watched her two toddlers race around the gravel trail Saturday morning, picking wild berries and eating the ones their mother said were safe.
“This is the best nature trail in Baton Rouge,” Blazek said. “There’s nothing else like it this close.”
Its location is a major draw for people like Blazek, who can make the quick drive from their homes and bring their children out for a few hours.
Most of the events set up by the park are geared toward children — including one in which parents drop off their children at night with a flashlight and insect repellent and pick them up later, after the children have explored for a couple of hours with the nature center’s staff.
The park’s exhibit building features live snakes, turtles and birds, as well as swamp-related photographs and information about animals.
Sean Golden, a staffer at the nature center, coddled a snake Saturday in the exhibit building as wide-eyed children marveled at it cautiously, with Golden insisting it wouldn’t bite.
At its inception as a public park in 1997, the swamp enjoyed few neighbors. But over the years, building development encroached on the surrounding areas, dumping sediment into the swamp.
Before the surrounding area was developed, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries periodically released baby alligators into the swamp. The alligators would live there for a time before outgrowing the area.
These days, Coco said, the park still gets frequent calls, mostly from tourists, who want to know if the park gives swamp tours.
The staff tells them they won’t see alligators, but they can visit the swamp for a break from the city and hopefully see other animals on a nature walk.