On any given day groups of children and their parents can be seen exploring life at Abbott’s Mill Nature Center in Milford.

Oftentimes, visitors are most interested in the mill or the winding nature paths that run through the forest.  In addition to the typical attractions, staff members have been directing visitors to participate in its 35-year anniversary activities.

For many of the staff members at Abbot’s Mill the great outdoors is more than just a place to go bird watching.

“There have been multiple studies showing time spent in nature is mentally and emotionally healing,” said site manager Matt Babbitt.

Helen Fischel, director of educational organizational development for the Delaware Nature Society, who owns Abbott’s Mill and the Ashland Nature Center, said nature sites do have a positive impact on the community, but she is concerned with the amount of people who aren’t aware.

“The challenge for any nature center is continuing to reach out to introduce ourselves to families and children and adults in the community,” FIschel said. “I can’t tell you how many times people will stop in and go ‘I never knew this was here.’”

The center has already hosted a handful of events recognizing its anniversary celebration. They’ve hosted a 5 K Run and, on the center’s June 7 birthday, held an open house where visitors had access to free canoe rentals, mill tours and guided hikes.

The celebration culminates with Autumn at Abbotts on Oct. 15, which is returning after an eight year hiatus.

The community wide celebration was once an annual thing in Milford. But, according to Babbit, a lack of manpower shut it down. 

“With the focus being our school programming the Autumn at Abbott’s became too much for us to do effectively,” Babbitt said.” “So the decision was made to stop until we could internally grow to handle something like that. It was a tough decision because the community seemed to enjoy it.”

The only reason it’s returning this year is because of the anniversary.  Babbitt said it’s possible they might do it in the future, but nothing is certain.

The center has been a staple of nature exploration in lower Delaware since it opened in 1981. It has grown from 27 to 500 acres throughout Sussex County.

Over the years, Abbott’s Mill has worked with a wide a range of visitors. Families bring their little ones to get their first dose of nature, school districts plan trips so students can apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to a real life settings and it serves as a gathering place for community groups.

Abbott’s journey started in 1919 when the property was owned by Ainsworth Abbott, the head of a milling family. When his wife passed away in 1963 he sold the land to the Killens Family.

Babbitt said the Killens wanted to use the land for educational purposes, so they sold it to the state. The state decided to name the center after the original owners of the property.

The plan was for the state to hold onto and do something educational with the property. 

“We really want to be a place where the community gathers that is a natural area but isn’t inaccessible,” Babbitt said.

Making nature accessible is a crucial component to the curriculum of surrounding school districts. This year, Abbott’s Mill started a new partnership with Milford School District. The agreement means students can plan trips to center areas where they can apply what they’ve learned. This is especially of interest to educators rolling out the Next Generation Science Standards.

According to Alison May, spokesperson for the Delaware Department of Education, the Delaware Nature Society has been a part of the Next Generation Science Standards implementation plan since the beginning for Delaware’s adoption of the standards.

“They offer hundreds of programs, field trips that align to NGSS and programs where they go into the classroom.”

With all the educational and recreational benefits of Abbott’s Mill, Babbitt is most impressed with the impact it will have on future generations.

“If the young generation is exposed to a place where they can really explore nature it creates a kind of ethos from the beginning,” Babbitt said. “When they become our age they’ll make decisions to preserve places like this so they aren’t developed.”