Feature Article - January 2008
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A Greener Future

Recreation's Push to Address 'Nature Deficit Disorder'

By Dawn Klingensmith

Learning Curve

In offering free programs, the Chicago Park District has found that no-shows can be a problem at events where space is limited. There might be a waiting list for a fishing event, for example, "but the day of, there are kayaks sitting empty," said Stewart, who has started allocating staff time for making reminder calls to registrants.

At Sunset Zoo, one of the greatest challenges is reaching middle- and high-school students, in part because "they're so busy with sports and cheerleading and homework and their social lives," Soash said.

When regularly scheduled after-school offerings failed to attract this demographic, the zoo developed a flexible Zoo Crew program allowing teens to help care for the animals on set days of their choosing.

"It's critical to span all ages," Soash said, adding that it's important to address the special needs of adults and seniors.

Brookline's recreation department offers a fall and spring series of interpretive nature hikes for older adults, which are advertised through area senior centers. "Some come for the exercise, some come for birding, some come to socialize, which are important programmatic components for this age group in addition to providing information about the natural history and geography of the area," Dean said.

Adult learners prefer to have a hand in shaping their learning experience, so program facilitators should ask up front what participants hope to achieve. And more so than children, adult learners are concerned with the immediate applicability of newly acquired knowledge, so folding environmental education into a skill-development course might engage them more effectively. For example, Brookline's recreation department offers a digital photography course led by a nature expert in the outdoors, where participants identify and discuss flora and fauna while learning techniques to capture the colors and textures of the autumn season.

As with children, programs aimed at seniors should offer multi-sensory experiences in the event that participants' eyes and ears aren't what they used to be.

By reaching every age group with environmental education, all of these facilities help grow interest in building a greener future.