Feature Article - April 2017
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Pass It On

Cultivating New Nature-Lovers With Environmental Education Programs

By Dave Ramont

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.