Feature Article - January 2008
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A Greener Future

Recreation's Push to Address 'Nature Deficit Disorder'

By Dawn Klingensmith

Starting Close to Home

A child's understanding of the world is constantly expanding, so environmental education should begin by connecting children with their immediate surroundings and regional ecology and then gradually move outward to address global issues. Such an approach is possible even in an urban environment such as Chicago, where the park district offers free, seasonally themed Nature Oasis programs designed to introduce people of all ages to the surprisingly complex ecology of the city's green spaces.

The Department of Recreation and the Division of Parks and Open Space in Brookline, Mass., offer a similar program called Nature Explorations, a fee-based series of eight classes, each of which takes place at a different park or sanctuary. "In this community, there's a pretty strong focus on toddlers—they're too young for kindergarten but old enough so parents are looking for opportunities to get out of the house with them," said Environmental Educator Christine Dean.

Offered year-round, Nature Explorations programs cost $140 for each adult-child pair and focus on environmental themes such as plant cycles and animal behavior while developing kids' observation, classification and counting skills. By design, the programs take an interdisciplinary and multi-sensory approach. Each class incorporates movement and a craft; for example, a course on how animals prepare for the winter incorporated a game of charades, and in a course on urban critters, the children made squirrel costumes out of brown grocery sacks.

"Involving all five senses keeps children engaged and hits on different learning styles," Dean said. "Some kids are tactile and need to feel and touch. Others can't sit still and need to explore."

Environmental education also can occur through self-guided exploration and unstructured play. With corporate funding support, Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City established a Children's Garden intended to introduce children to formal horticulture as well as native species in their natural environment. A snake maze consisting of a framework covered with vines is one of many play features designed to "get kids up close and personal with plant life," said Patrick Newman, director of programs.

Red Butte Garden also offers an array of formal education programs including Cooking in the Garden, which demonstrates real-life, everyday applications of horticultural knowledge. Aspiring Emerils prepare simple meals using garden-fresh ingredients and compile recipe books to take home.