Pass It On

Cultivating New Nature-Lovers With Environmental Education Programs


When hearing mention of The Audubon Society, most people automatically think of birds. And while it's true that the nonprofit conservation organization promotes awareness of our fine feathered friends, they also possess loftier goals—from protecting and restoring local habitats to implementing policies that safeguard all wildlife and our natural resources. At the heart of that mission is a commitment to education—laying the foundation of future conservation by inspiring more people to value and protect the natural world. The Audubon achieves this through 500 local chapters and 41 nature centers—many of which are found in urban areas as they look to engage new, more diverse audiences. Each year, the Audubon Adventures program reaches 100,000 school kids alone.

How do park districts, forest preserves, schools and environmental agencies get kids (and adults) outside to gain an understanding of their natural surroundings—creating a new generation of environmentalists? Here, we'll offer up a few examples of successful programs from across the United States.

Driving east on Loop 12, 10 minutes south of downtown Dallas, you might see hawks, sparrows, scissor-tail flycatchers or bluebirds among the abundant prairie vegetation. You'll then come upon the Trinity River Audubon Center, sitting on 130 acres along the Trinity River.

For 30 years, an illegally operated dump sat here, until it was shut down and became an EPA Superfund site. Now it's native Blackland Prairie and bottomland hardwood forest, according to Lucy Hale, the center's director.

And while visitors can simply hike, birdwatch or participate in guided programs, the center is dedicated to offering educational opportunities for young people, believing that getting kids outside into natural areas and giving them authentic experiences there creates a lifelong passion for protecting that environment.

Hale said that upon learning what the site once was, kids can't fathom how someone would harm the environment like that, and they're amazed at the transformation the land has undertaken to get back to nature. "That's the deep connection that will help ensure that this generation of kids becomes protectors of our planet," she said.

How do park districts, forest preserves, schools and environmental agencies get kids (and adults) outside to gain an understanding of their natural surroundings?

Trinity River's signature academic program for K-12 students is called Eco-Investigations, and more than 20,000 students participate each year with a curriculum geared toward the state's educational standards. Hale said it's "… a unique program in that an educator is paired with a group of students for three or four hours doing outdoor and wet-lab investigations."

Students explore the three ecosystems unique to the center—forest, prairie and river—during a hike. Pre-K through second grade students might meet an animal up close or learn about pond life. High-schoolers may partake in a bird-focused program including identification and data collection, or evaluate the consequences of natural disasters on food webs.

Schoolyard Investigations is a school-partner program designed to help students engage with their schoolyard environment, while increasing observation and documentation skills, culminating with a trip to the Audubon Center. Themes include animal homes, food chains, trees, insects, birds and geology.

Kids may visit Trinity River multiple times through their elementary, middle and high school careers. Hale said many of them initially have the same trepidations about being outside, mostly relating to poison ivy and bears (there are no bears), but their fears are quickly assuaged by the environmental educators. They fill out eco-journals during their programs, providing them with a comfortable, focused activity. "By the end of the day, the students are pros at being outside and have gone through an experience they will never forget."


Trinity River also offers fall, spring and summer Adventure Camps. "These are week long drop-off programs that offer kids the ability to have a fun, nature-based experience during their school vacation times," Hale said. Conservation Treks is a program where urban high school students are taken on weeklong camping expeditions to state and national parks in Texas, where they learn outdoor survival skills and work with local environmental leaders participating in conservation work.

The Riverbend Environmental Education Center in Gladwyne, Pa., was established in 1974 on property that was once a Civil War camp. The 30-acre preserve is open to the public and features walking trails, ponds, woodlands, a meadow habitat, a stream and a Sears Roebuck barn built in 1923. Initially a wildlife refuge offering a few camps and programs, Riverbend has become a dynamic center for nature and science education initiatives aimed to engage future generations in environmental stewardship, serving more than 20,000 people annually through education programs and other special events.

Director of Development Lisa Hancock relates how many who work in environmental fields made their first deep connections with nature playing in neighborhood creeks or tramping through meadows and woodlands. "Nature connections make memorable, lasting impressions that—tied with scientific research—drive conservation work. We've seen over and over that when children engage with nature through their own sensory experiences and learn how ecological systems work, they develop the passion to protect the natural world."

A major focus of Riverbend is providing opportunities to those with little access to the natural world, and most of the kids they serve come from low-income households. They also provide outreach programs to those in urban, underserved communities throughout the Philadelphia area, thanks to funding from various foundations and organizations. These programs include in-class lessons, field trips and training for teachers.


Hancock pointed out how kids with behavior challenges in the indoor classroom have space to release their energy at Riverbend. "As a child treks up the path and becomes engaged with an earthworm, insect or plant, teachers observe that negative and distracting behaviors often disappear."

Some of the many program offerings at Riverbend include Pond, Stream, and Meadow, which immerses students in multiple habitats where they'll discover plants and animals. Riverbend Rock and Roll explores geology. Frozen Foragers looks at which animals stay active in winter, and how they find food and survive. Beneath Our Feet explores the soil, animal homes and decomposition. From Eggs to Legs looks at the transformation of frogs, butterflies and dragonflies as students explore life cycles. There's also Flowers in Bloom, Insect Exploration, Tall Tall Trees, and Watersheds. And for those who can't visit the center, there's Riverbend on the Road, where they'll visit your school with a nature-based program supporting your curriculum. They also offer Nature Afterschool Clubs, where kids gather at their school for one hour each week.

Riverbend has Exploration Camps for different age groups, which take place on school holidays, where they may study wilderness survival, partake in science experiments, or learn how to feed, groom and exercise Riverbend's animals that reside in the red barn. They offer a popular 11-week summer camp, and an Educators-In-Training program that seeks to create confident leaders and role models by training qualified participants to assist with summer camp duties.

While Riverbend's educators believe that tech-free activities are a good thing, they're also open to learning how to use technology to enhance—not supplant—the nature experience. Hancock mentioned the Pokemon Go craze, and how children and young adults were visiting the center to find virtual Pokemon characters, so they highlighted the activity on their social media, encouraging people to make the leap from technology to learning about nature. "For them, technology is a basic tool, much like a shovel," Hancock said.

How many, who work in environmental fields, made their first deep connections with nature playing in neighborhood creeks or tramping through meadows and woodlands?

Even with shrinking budgets, many forest preserves and park districts are finding ways to offer nature-based programs for kids and adults, and many are opening nature education centers. The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Ill., provides an engaging look at the area environment at the Fullersburg Woods Visitor Center, where visitors can explore the world of the local Salt Creek and its inhabitants. They can view a wooly mammoth skeleton or use microscopes and spotting scopes to examine local creatures, or learn how to identify common birds and animal tracks.

The Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center offers programs to the general public, youth and civic groups, and educators. And each year, more than 35,000 school kids visit the center to learn about the local environment and how they can improve conditions for future generations. The center offers several field trips and outreach programs meeting state curriculum standards, as well as a number of opportunities for Scouts and youth groups working toward badges and other achievements.

Chris Gingrich is the manager of visitor services at the DuPage County Forest Preserve, and Keith McClow is the manager of heritage education. They point to the many studies linking time spent outside with positive physical, academic, social and emotional benefits. "As for environmental stewardship, the first step in appreciating and valuing the natural world is spending time in it", Gingrich said.

McClow added, "When we take the Farmhands Day Camp kids into the woods and play in the creek, we see kids open up to nature. The apprehensive ones see other kids playing and join in."

Other programs the district offers include Ranger Adventure Day, where kids find out what it takes to be a ranger. Critter Chat is a Sunday activity allowing people to meet the toads, snakes, turtles and more that call Fullersburg Woods home, with a different featured guest each week. There's Wildlife Sleepover and Read and Hike. Kids Day Off takes advantage of school holidays to engage kids in activities such as tapping trees and making maple syrup, identifying wildflowers, and tracking resident and migrant wildlife. "Whether it's a special program, event, camp or just having the preserves open, we want to encourage families to do more than spend the day off from school in front of a TV, videogame or computer screen," Gingrich said.


The DuPage County Forest Preserve District also offers educational loan boxes as a great way for teachers to introduce students to natural and cultural history. "Our loan boxes touch on topics that relate to state learning standards and fit into various parts of the school curriculum and scout programs. They include activities, lesson plans and instructions so teachers and group leaders can easily get the most out of the resources," Gingrich explained. Books, DVDs, specimens and other materials are included, with topics including Birds, Fossils, Insects and Spiders, Invasive Species, Wild Mammals, Watersheds, Prairie Plants, and Nature Detectives.

Park districts often offer volunteer opportunities—open to individuals, families and groups—which can be a great way to connect with the environment and learn about good stewardship. Some of the opportunities the St. Charles Park District in Illinois offers include seed harvesting, which is vital to the district's ecological restoration efforts. Frog monitoring is an important way to evaluate the ecological health of a region; participants in this program are trained in visual identification and distinguishing different frog voices, and will learn how to record and report their observations. Volunteers can also assist with nature programming and special events, or simply pitch in with restoration of natural areas, cleaning up trails and shorelines, and more.

Pam Johnson teaches second grade at Anderson School in St. Charles, and she explained how teachers can do classroom projects to promote nature-based learning, as long as they tie in with Illinois curriculum and core standards. For instance, during their butterfly unit, students study the butterfly life cycle, and the school orders the larvae so kids can watch the transformation in real time. Johnson said they put the desks in circles with a table holding the larvae in the middle so the kids can keep a close watch. "Once they're in their pupa stage they can see them coming out of the chrysalis. The kids love it!" When they turn into adult Painted Lady butterflies, the students release them outside. And, when studying the weather unit, the students will make instruments like weather vanes and anemometers and take them outside, so they can write about weather conditions such as wind speed and direction, cloud type and temperature.

The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, founded in 1934, is a refuge for birds of prey and an international center for raptor conservation. The mountaintop preserve in Kempton, Pa., sits on 2,600 acres and offers scenic overlooks, eight miles of trails, a native plant garden with a pond, several small wetlands, a visitor center, and the Acopian Center for Conservational Learning. Their mission is to conserve birds of prey worldwide by maintaining the sanctuary as a model observation, research and education facility. The public can participate in workshops, lectures, weekend nature programs, or simply hike, explore or come for the autumn hawk migration.


Education offerings include guided group programs where participants receive an overview of the sanctuary by an educator, and discussions which might include natural history, raptor identification, migration information, geography or information on Appalachian forest ecology. Students and participants can then explore the sanctuary and forest on their own. Live birds can also be incorporated.

"We currently have four avian ambassadors that we use in our education programs," said Erin Brown, director of education. "We receive birds from wildlife rehabilitators. These birds are deemed un-releasable by a vet due to an injury."

Brown believes that service-learning, citizen science and project-based learning are excellent ways to connect youth to the outdoors. "Youth are the next generation of decision-makers for our planet. They'll need to make informed decisions about the environment in their daily and political lives. In order to do this effectively, they must have had positive hands-on educational experiences outdoors."

Hawk Mountain also offers a distance-education program, with learning facilitated via Skype videoconferencing. A raptor trunk filled with learning materials is sent prior to the program, which are different for elementary, middle or high school students. "For example, the high school trunk contains a radio telemetry unit with instructions. The lesson plan focuses on satellite telemetry data we've gathered from raptors we've tagged. In this way we mesh our conservation scientists' research with our education department's programs and outreach," Brown said.

Internships are another great way to encourage young people to step into environmental livelihoods, and Hawk Mountain has recently launched a full-time paid spring and fall internship program in addition to their summer program. Interns receive conservation science and education training, do independent projects such as working on curricula, and work with scientists in the field. They also offer part-time and credit internships run through colleges. "The International Trainee program and the Education Internship program train and support students and conservationists all over the world," Brown said. "We've trained 411 trainees from 75 countries since 1976."


Back at the Audubon Center, Hale said that some of the kids who visited at an early age came back to intern in high school or college. She's also seen—particularly with their Conservation Treks program—high school students switch their declared major as they headed to college due to meeting a variety of people in environmental careers. "I'm also seeing many millennials who are passionate about the environment trying to see if there's space for them in this field, many coming from a more traditional business degree, but discovering they have a passion for nature and really want to do something to help the environment."

Hancock said they often hear about individuals whose love for nature began at Riverbend as kids, and this sometimes plants the seeds that lead to careers or volunteer work in conservation. Kaitlyn Martin was once a young camper at Riverbend, and she returned to serve as a summer camp educator, and then returned again to serve as assistant camp director. She's currently working on her doctorate at the Centre for Science Communication in New Zealand. "As a camper," Martin said, "Riverbend was one of the first places I had the opportunity to explore and learn about the natural world, later inspiring my study of evolutionary biology in college. The best part of Riverbend is that it makes learning fun—and muddy if you're lucky!"

Our natural world is facing tough times, and maybe our best line of defense is getting a kid interested in a flower or a frog. "It's really no secret that the environmental problems we face as a nation and planet are daunting," Hancock said. "In view of this, the next generation will be forced to make informed decisions to address changing environmental conditions."

She pointed to a National Environmental Training Foundation study showing that while 95 percent of American adults support environmental education in schools, a stunning 80 percent are influenced by incorrect or outdated environmental myths. "Raising the environmental literacy of Americans citizens—especially our youth—is a clear priority."

Up on Hawk Mountain, Brown simply adds this: "How can you be a good steward for something you know nothing about?"