Feature Article - October 2013
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Programming: Trails

Path to Nature
Programming Trends in Environmental Education

By Chris Gelbach

The term environmental education may cause some people to think of traditional programs such as Earth Day celebrations and nature walks to identify flora and fauna.

And they still remain programming staples at many parks. But environmental educators at park districts, arboretums and other nature-focused facilities are now also attracting new audiences through a variety of innovative programming approaches.

Training Environmental Stewards

As the focus on climate change, depletion of our natural resources and other environmental issues intensifies, more people are engaging with their local park districts and other entities to have a positive impact. In response, these facilities have bolstered their programming to better train these volunteers.

"One thing we've really been increasing our focus on is service-based learning," said Megan Dunning, manager of community education and outreach for the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill. "You've got folks who are ready to really step in and take action and make a difference in the environment—but they may not have the knowledge tools they need to facilitate them on that road."

The Morton Arboretum is addressing this need through its Woodland Stewardship Training Program, which teaches people about the maintenance and restoration of natural areas and woodland habitats in Northern Illinois. This includes classes on local flora and fauna, prairie conservation and management, wilderness burn crew training, pesticide use and other related topics.

In addition to training environmental stewards, this program has also proven beneficial to community engagement in maintaining the arboretum grounds.

"The volunteer work that's being done on the natural areas of our property has skyrocketed since that program launched," Dunning said. "It is really helping us manage our natural areas, and we're also seeing the volunteers in the forest preserves around the region. It's huge what you can do to empower folks who really want to get out there and do the work."

In Seattle, the city's parks and recreation department also trains a high volume of dedicated volunteers for its Seattle Volunteer Naturalists program. "The volunteers get about 80 hours of training over the course of an entire year, and they help us teach to school groups and teach the public programs," said Belinda Chin, environmental learning coordinator for Seattle Parks and Recreation. Chin estimates that last year alone, 50 or so volunteers gave the park district more than 10,000 hours of service teaching others about the natural and cultural history of the Puget Sound area.

Peoria Park District in Illinois has seen similar growth since it started its Volunteer Stewardship Network in 1992. In fact, the area has since seen the debut of a not-for-profit called Peoria Wilds that also plays a stewardship role.

"It's a different spin on a friends group," said Mike Miller, supervisor of environmental and interpretive services for Peoria Park District. "They're not necessarily building a nature center. They're building a cathedral—they're working in the parks and saving and maintaining the biodiversity of our park system."

Programming Gets Creative

As they strive to attract increasingly sophisticated audiences, environmental education programmers are trying more creative hooks to lure patrons in. "I've been in the environmental education realm for over 25 years," said Miller. "When I first came on, you could get 50 people coming to an early-morning bird hike at a nature center."

Environmental educators at park districts, arboretums and other nature-focused facilities are now attracting new audiences through a variety of innovative programming approaches.

Today, to get the same number of people can require some creativity. For instance, Miller and his colleagues tried to brainstorm a way to get more kids out in the woods communing with nature. "We thought, what kinds of kids' programs can we do to get maybe moms and their kids out in the woods? What if we had something where you could take your American Girl doll out on a hike?"

So they tried it—and the doll hike was a huge success. "We had 50 kids show up with their dolls," said Miller. "You couldn't have gotten that many girls out for a hike any other way. And what was interesting was, when you'd show the kid a butterfly, they'd show the doll the butterfly. And so it was a way they became not only participants, but also teachers. To an inanimate object, but it was important. Never be afraid to try new things, even if they sound a little odd."

Likewise, the Morton Arboretum recently hosted a sculpture exhibition called David Rogers' Big Bugs, which included 10 giant insect sculptures made of natural materials and placed throughout the arboretum grounds. A series of fun bug-themed workshops were held in support of the exhibition, such as Mantis Mania, which allowed kids to find out about the unique habits of the insect and make a camouflaged creation. The arboretum even had a program on edible insects complete with the opportunity to sample some culinary insects. "We got quite a few people to try the bugs," said Dunning. "They got a sticker saying they ate a bug at Morton Arboretum, and it was a lot of fun."