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Redefining School

by Nicole Brin, Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education

Preface: The past 7 years teaching young children have taught me more about myself, our education system, and human nature as a whole than I could ever have imagined when starting out. The most recent 4 years spent teaching with the Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool have broadened my views of what is possible in the world of education and led me to the next step in my professional journey. As I move out of the classroom and into the role of Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education, I hope to learn, share, and advocate as much as I can for progressive, “out of the box” education. Demonstrating that quality learning can happen in a variety of different ways.

As many have said before – in order to build a better future society that so many people desperately want, we must start with what we are teaching our children.

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I was good at school. In fact, I might even go as far as to say I was an ideal student. I sat quietly, paid attention, and spoke when I had the answer to the question being asked. I did my homework and tested pretty well. My grades showed that I was a hard worker who stayed out of trouble. It seems unlikely that many of my teachers would remember who I was, and I’m not sure I remember all of their names either.

Now let’s think about this in a slightly different way…

I was good at “school.” In fact, I might even go as far as to say I fit the mold perfectly. I understood that adults knew more than me, tried hard to comprehend everything, and didn’t mind keeping most of my thoughts in my head. I had limited free time and was able to memorize and repeat the information deemed important.  My personal identity was not yet developed. It seems that my teachers prepared me with the work ethic and compliance needed to succeed later in life.

This is not entirely a bad thing…

I learned to read quite well, write intelligently, and do enough math to get by day-to-day. I was aware of the many uneducated in our world and knew that I was fortunate to receive the education that I did. I was and continue to be, thankful.

However, shortly after finishing my 17th year of formal schooling, I was amidst a personal crisis. Feeling rather stagnant, I was lacking true passion. I was unsure how I fit into the adult world and was struggling to find a career that was a good match. I was educated by modern society’s standards, but I wasn’t truly happy.

Little by little change is coming. I work to understand more about who I am as a person and what parts of this incredible world interest me. This is still ongoing, but my overall happiness is a direct testament to its success. And so, I began thinking; What if we could get today’s children to this place a little quicker? How could this benefit the wellbeing of society?

What if today’s education looked a bit more like this…

discovery_nb_4-21-16I am good at learning. In fact, I might even go as far as to say it is an ongoing discovery process. I figure things out, consider many different perspectives, and question everything while looking deeply into why. I’m finding my passion and sharing it with others. I am going to make the world better because of it. It seems that embodying these qualities in pursuit of knowledge may be one of the truest keys to life.

A playground for artists, Part I

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Editor’s note: The Schuylkill Center produced a wall calendar for 2017 in celebration of the environmental art program. Throughout the year, we’ll run a monthly post on our blog highlighting the art works featured in that month of the calendar.

Part of the Schuylkill Center’s mission is to use our forests and fields as a living laboratory; for the art program, that means that we provide opportunities for artists to use our site as an place for experimentation in their artistic practice – which can some times look and feel a lot like play.

In fall 2010, the Schuylkill Center presented an exhibition called Ground Play in partnership with the Nexus Foundation for Today’s Art.

In Ground Play, The Schuylkill Center asked six artists (Susan Abrams, Nick Cassway, Jebney Lewis, Michael McDermott, Leah Reynolds, and Jennie Thwing) from the former co-op to respond to the history and physical space of its Second Site (Brolo Hill Farm) in a show from September 19th – November 28th, 2010.

Second Site, known historically as Brolo Hill Farm, was at one time an active farmstead, and includes an 18th-century farm house, barn, and remnants of a plowed field once used to grow feed hay for livestock. For the show Ground Play, Nexus artists considered both the agricultural and cultural conditions that might have existed on the site when the farm was active, and examined through their installations the implications of those dynamics in today’s environmental climate.

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For Light & Paper, Susan Abrams installed large plant photographs in the windows of the abandoned farmhouse at Brolo Farm.  The fourteen photographs mounted in the boarded up farmhouse windows focused on small and often overlooked aspects of the Brolo Hill Farm site and play with scale by making the images much larger than life.  The photographs were in sharp relief to the more abstract pulp-painted handmade paper works she also installed, which not only interpreted the site but also incorporated materials gathered there.  

Abrams used natural materials found at Second Site as subjects in the photographs and as ingredients in her handmade paper.  The paper works will weathered and changed over the course of the exhibition adding nature as an ongoing component to the art. She approached this singular environment by examining many of the small details, often unnoticed, yet essential to the landscape, then enlarging them to a human scale, inhabiting the house, as they do the Schuylkill Center’s site.

Leah Reynolds presented The Combustibility of Hay and Farmer’s Lung, a large work hung on the side of the old barn at Brolo Farm. The title and imagery refered to the fungus “Aspergillus furnigatus” which grows in baled hay and may cause it to spontaneously ignite (the Brolo Farm chiefly produced hay).

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In general, fungi are crucial to the recycling of nutrients within ecosystems because they break down organic matter (they form networks connected by tubular branches called hyphae).  This particular fungus may also cause a disease known as “Farmer’s Lung” when the mold spores that it produces are inhaled in an enclosed area such as a barn.  Reynolds’ piece covered the face of the Second Site barn with acrylic-coated fabric, giving the impression that it has been inundated with a large and virulent fungus.  Reynolds playfully tackled this topic with bright colors, transforming the barn into a giant art object. Editor’s note: Reynolds’ work is also on view as part of our summer 2017 exhibition, Making in Place, on view through August 12!

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Nick Cassway’s In the Woods responded to Brolo Farm with a group portrait series created by computer cut reflective vinyl.  The title refers to being dislocated, either physically or psychologically; feeling out of your element, vulnerable, over your head.  The 36 drawings are separated into 3 “acts”: the enticement, the partaking, and the repercussion.  Collectively, these images were meant to form and emotional tapestry; there is no singular narrative thread.  The pieces used the language of road signage – the shapes, stature, and materials – to literally become “warning signs” scattered throughout the landscape.  The drawings were made using computer cut black reflective vinyl (traffic engineering film) mounted on matte black painted aluminum panels and for maximum effect were intended to be seen at night via flashlight.

Editor’s note: Images from Ground Play were also featured in our wall calendar for October – stay tuned for a blog post in early October covering the other three artists in this show!

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Naturaleza por dentro

Por: Eduardo Dueñas, Lead Environmental Educator | For an English version of this blog post, see here.

Siempre me encantaron los olores, colores y sabores de los dias. Yo era un nino inquieto que le gustaba levantar piedras en el patio de mi casa para ver que sorpresa me esperaba. Ese mismo nino que corria afuera cada vez que llovia para poder oler la tierra mojada.

Un nino que durante los partido de futbol le gustaba chupar pedazos de cesped y tirar piedras al rio.

Desde muy temprana edad me interesaron las plantas y los animales, gustos que me llevaron a explorar muchos lugares y conocer personas increibles.

Despues de estudiar sobre los procesos de la vida, no me quedaron dudas que la naturaleza hay que respetarla y llevarla por dentro.

Es imperativo para el bienestar de todos que los jovenes crezcan sin barreras fisicas o mentales sobre la naturaleza. Asi se convertiran en sus protectores para siempre.

Durante el transcurso de mi maestria pude estudiar a fondo las repercusiones de las acciones humanas sobre la naturaleza, dejando en claro que nuestro estilo de vida no solo destruye nuestra salud sino tambien todo lo importante que nos rodea.

Es por eso que en mi tesis final plasme la necesidad de replantear la forma de como aprendemos y de como percibimos nuetro entorno.

La educacion por ende sera la unica esperanza para cambiar el mundo y poder dejar un verdadero legado para las generaciones futuras.

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education es una organizacion pionera con mas de 50 años de experiencia en la porteccion y conservacion ambiental.

Me siento feliz de trabajar en un lugar como The Schuylkill Center donde se comparten y desarrollan muchas ideas sobre la comprencion y proteccion de nuestro medio ambiente. Los programas incluyen jovenes y adultos de diferentes edades, procedencias, razgos etnicos y niveles educativos.

Mi oficina es en el bosque con los ninos donde ellos juegan y exploran libremente. Durante algunas caminatas dibujamos, recolectamos plantas, hojas, semillas, raicez y hacemos te de algunas de ellas, otras veces arte o  escribimos  observaciones en su hojas de trabajo. Me gusta sentir que soy bienvenido en este lugar y ver en mis estudiantes el curioso niño que solia ser.

Eduardo DuenasEduardo Duenas es un Educador Ambiental que trabaja para la organizacion ambiental,The Schuylkill Center. Primero se involucró con el Centro como voluntario antes de trabajar a tiempo completo en programas educativos como; lecciones para grupos guiados en el SCEE, al igual que programas después de la escuela y programas comunitarios. Eduardo Tiene una formación en estudios ambientales, con un máster en Gestión Ambiental y Desarrollo Sostenible. También tiene experiencia como maestro de aula y le encanta trabajar con niños de todas las edades.

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Nature from Within | Naturaleza por dentro

By Eduardo Dueñas, Lead Environmental Educator | Para una versión en Español de este post, por favor ver aquí. 

For as long as I can remember, I have always loved the scents, colors, and surprises of each day.  I was a curious child who always liked to pick up rocks in the yard of my house to see what surprise awaited me underneath- a colorful beetle, a squirmy worm, or a family of ants. That same curiosity drove me to run outside everytime it rained to feel the rain and smell wet earth.  I was the curious kid who would suck on blades of grass and throw stones into the river during a soccer game.  From a young age, I was interested in plants and animals- passions which led me to explore many new places and meet incredible people working for positive change, ecological awareness, and conservation of our fragile planet.

After studying biology, I was left with no doubt that we must respect nature and carry nature within us.

It is critical for the wellbeing of everyone that children are able to grow up without physical or mental barriers removing them from nature. For some children and communities, it can be difficult to access natural areas or to find ways to connect with nature on a daily basis.  When we help children to spend time in nature and understand the environment around them, they can become protectors and champions of our natural world.

In earning my master’s degree, I had the chance to study in depth the repercussions of human impact on nature – from unsustainable urban development to monoculture farming.  It became clear to me that many modern lifestyles impact our own health and the health of the natural world around us.  Because of this, I chose to focus my Master’s thesis on the need to readjust the way we learn about and perceive our surroundings- the natural world.  I believe that education is our strongest hope to change the world and leave a positive legacy for future generations. As Baba Dioum said “”In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

I feel lucky and inspired to work at a place like the Schuylkill Center, where every day we share and develop ideas about understanding and protecting our natural world. I love that our programs include children and adults of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities – like our after school programs with urban schools in Philadelphia, our outreach programs with Latino communities, and our family-friendly education and volunteer programs -like toad detour- for all ages.

Today, my office is the forest, where I work with children to guide them as they play and explore freely.  During hikes, we draw, collect plants, seeds, or roots to make teas, sometimes we make art, or make notes about what we see in workbooks.  It is fulfilling to me to be able to support a love of nature in my students, I see in them the curious kid I used to be.

Eduardo DuenasEduardo Duenas is an Environmental Educator at the Schuylkill Center. He first became involved with the Center as a volunteer before working full time with guided educational groups at the Schuylkill Center, after-school programs, and community outreach programs. He has a background in environmental studies, with a Master’s degree in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development.  He also has experience as a classroom teacher and loves working with children of all ages.

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Red-tailed Hawks at the Franklin Institute: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway as Wildlife Habitat

By guest contributor Christian Hunold, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Drexel University

In the spring of 2012 I stumbled across a community of amateur naturalists who were drawn to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway not by the museums or the cultural events, but by a pair of red-tailed hawks nesting on a second-story window ledge of the Franklin Institute. Grid Magazine had requested some pictures of the hawks, and so I spent one sunny afternoon in late May photographing the half-grown chicks huddled on the nest at the corner of 21st and Winter Street.

I recall feeling a little bored: where was the fun in shooting urban hawks? How could birds habituated to humans, like the city’s ubiquitous pigeons and geese, be at all interesting? And the noise and stink of the unrelenting traffic assaulting my senses from all sides made me think that Center City was the last place on Earth anyone should be asked to photograph wildlife. The only bright spot was the beautiful early evening light I had to work with: at least my images of the chicks weren’t going to be the worst anyone had ever taken, even if the awkward half downy/half feathered look they were sporting at this age did not scream “charismatic megafauna.”

fledglingsAnother year would pass before my previously separate lives as a wildlife photographer and as a scholar of environmental politics merged around the topic of urban wildlife. May had come around again, and I decided to visit the nest one afternoon. The hawks were once more raising three chicks. This time, I caught a glimpse of one of the adults trailing the Institute’s roofline along 21st Street before it was briefly obscured by the building. Moments later it cleared the roof and, set off against the golden glow of the late afternoon sandstone façade, delivered the bloody remains of a squirrel to the nest. While the other parent fed chunks of meat to the three hungry chicks, the successful hunter flew to a nearby plane tree, where it cleaned its beak and talons.

Now this was not boring! On subsequent outings I got to know the hawks as well as some of the people who watched them. I knew the Franklin Institute’s online “nest cam” had attracted a popular following around the world. But I did not at first appreciate the extent to which the hawks’ travels through the city were being monitored on the ground. The hawk watchers – middle-aged, more women than men – were not so much bird watchers as dyed-in-the-wool hawk fans, intimately familiar with the birds’ daily habits and life histories. I learned they had named the female bird “Mom” and the male “T2,” short for “Tiercel 2” (he was the female’s second mate since the hawks had nested at the Franklin Institute.) When the chicks fledged in June I was there with my camera to document their early forays to nearby trees, buildings, and monuments. I’d gotten hooked.T2_Hunold Continue reading

Naturalist’s Notebook: The Missing Sponge

By Andrew Kirkpatrick, Manager of Land Stewardship

If you take a walk along Smith Run, coming up Ravine Loop below Penn’s Native Acres, the hillsides where the beeches, oaks and maples grow show signs of distress.  The structural roots of the trees are visible at the soil line when they should be tucked away cozily wrapped in the warm blanket of leaf litter and organic rich soil.  Instead, because of exotic invasive earthworms, which can be observed by scraping away the thin layer of leaves on the ground, the roots are exposed and left to fend for themselves in all of the elements; freezing winter winds, driving rains, and blazing sun.  If you look up, the impact on the trees is apparent.  Bare branches and diminished canopy reveal their stresses.  The trees are dying.  

In healthy, undisturbed forest soil, we would discover a universe of fungus, microorganisms, bacteria, and insects thriving. All of these elements facilitate the healthy growth and development of plant roots. The vast root mat matrix of the organic horizon (the top layer of healthy soil) in the forest acts like a gigantic sponge that collects water when it rains and holds it in storage for trees to use in the drier months of the year.  

However, in highly disturbed areas like the Schuylkill Center, the organic horizon of the soil is absent. Soil horizon is a technical term for the classification of the cake-like layers of soil.  The organic horizon is missing here because hundreds of years of agricultural use have long since removed the original rich soil and left mostly thin, mineral soil at the top of the profile.  In fact, parts of our property were in farmland almost until the Center’s founding in 1965. The forest has not been able to redevelop the O horizon as it might have otherwise, largely due to the activity of invasive earthworms.

photo by Julia Aguilar

photo by Julia Aguilar

Invasive earthworm and castings

Invasive earthworm and castings

The invasive earthworms are much larger than our native ones, tunnel deeper into the earth and voraciously devour the leaf litter that would accumulate annually in the fall, break down over time to replenish the soil, and rebuild the O horizon.  So what is left is a loose accumulation of worm castings on a destabilized base that washes away into our streams every time it rains, carrying many nutrients with them.  And when the dry times of the year arrive, the trees have no reserve of nutrients to draw upon.  Instead our forest is stressed and vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases that it would otherwise be able to fend off.  

Planting Fox Glen_5-20-17 (10)20170516_115508We can address these problems by improving the soil and providing the roots of trees with a healthy environment to grow and develop.  In our Fox Glen restoration site, as we planted new trees we covered the ground around them with wood chips to help the roots retain moisture.  The wood chips will break down over time and add to the organic content of the soil.  

If we want our forest at the Schuylkill Center to survive climate change and the increasing stresses that come from an urban environment, we must help it to be as resilient as possible by replacing the missing sponge.

About the author

photo by Heather FowlerAndrew has a master’s degree in landscape architecture and ecological restoration from Temple University.  He hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2005-2006.

Photo by Heather Fowler, WHYY

An excerpt from this piece was published in our summer newsletter in June 2017.

(Un)Natural Perspectives

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Editor’s note: The Schuylkill Center produced a wall calendar for 2017 in celebration of the environmental art program. Throughout the year, we’ll run a monthly post on our blog highlighting the art works featured in that month of the calendar.

Works were exported from the studio and given a new life outside for Out of Bounds, a show presented in collaboration with The Center for Emerging Visual Artists in 2012. From June to September that year, work was placed against the backdrop in which it was inspired by – the natural world. Some works were recreated and recontextualized, while others played with the natural elements, giving the viewer a new perspective on the familiar landscape.

Curated jointly by the Schuylkill Center’s then-Director of Environmental Art, Jenny Laden, and CFEVA’s then-Director of Career Development, Amie Potsic, Out of Bounds renewed a partnership between the organizations that continues today.

The exhibition featured seven fellows and alumni of CFEVA’s Career Development Program, a 2-year fellowship for artists.

Caleb Nussear played with mirrors, layering the visual experience of the woods.

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Susan Benarcik transformed wire hangers into large dewdrop like sculptures that hung near our Visitor Center.  

Editor’s note: artist Oki Fukunaga also utilized hangers in his sculptures as part of our summer 2017 exhibition, Making in Place, on view now!

Ana B. Hernandez’s fabric sculptures added a bold pop of color while suggesting fungal growth on decaying logs.

Brooke Hine’s white anemone-like ceramic forms enlivened tree stumps more subtly.

Mami Kato’s work was installed in our Fire Pond, and was inevitably surrounded by duckweed, a floating aquatic plant.

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Scott Pellnat’s giant boat gave the feeling of being trapped in the woods, far from any navigable waters.

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Darla Jackson’s “Birthday Party” enlivened our indoor gallery space, as a way to welcome visitors and mark the 25th anniversary celebration of the Schuylkill Center’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic.

Out of Bounds allowed us to play with the boundaries of the natural & “un”natural by seeing familiar forms recontextualized to suit various environments both in & outdoors, sometimes using synthetic materials to imitate forms found in the natural environment.

Artist Profile: Jane Carver

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art

Imagine the quiet of a grove of tall pine trees, the impressions of your footsteps barely audible on a cushion of pine needles, punctuated by the occasional bird or creaking limb.  Now, imagine the soundscape also includes an ethereal voice accompanied by the haunting notes of an accordion. You’ll have the opportunity to experience precisely these sounds this summer, as artist Jane Carver performs a special one night only concert in our Pine Grove.

Carver is a Philadelphia-based artist and musician who is part of our summer exhibition, Making in Place.  She started playing classical music when she was quite young, then branched out into folk music as a teenager.  She is primarily a vocalist and an accordionist, both of which she will share in her concert in July.

For Carver, performing is a way that she can connect with others.  “I love singing with other people,” she says, “That’s my joy.”  Carver now sings with Svitanya, a women’s vocal ensemble that specializes in Eastern European folk music.  Carver describes listening to folk music as the experience of “hearing something completely unfamiliar and feeling like you’re home.”  

At the opening reception for Making in Place in May, Carver performed a few songs in our amphitheater, and this idea truly resonated with me.  Most of the lyrics were in Bulgarian and so I could not directly understand the meaning, yet as I listened to Carver along with the wind in the trees of the Schuylkill Center and the sounds of playing children, I felt it. Carver says that the fundamental point of performing is to “create a moment that everybody can be part of,” and in the moment of her performance, we were.

In addition to her site-specific performances, Carver spent the past few months taking field recordings at the Schuylkill Center and blending them with her own music to develop a sound piece designed to be experienced as visitors walk along our trails. Signs in the gallery and at the entry points to the Widener Trail detail how to listen to it on your own device as you explore the Schuylkill Center property.

Carver says that it has been valuable to her to be an artist at the Schuylkill Center, with space to explore her ideas and respond to our site.  She reflects, “The Schuylkill Center is so important because it provides various means of access to incredibly important resources.  I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be an artist within this site and hopefully share these resources with a greater public through my work.”

As our environmental art program grows and develops, we hope to offer more performance events and multidisciplinary art experiences, expanding from environmental art to environmental arts.  If you couldn’t join us for the opening reception, I hope you won’t miss seeing Carver perform this summer – it’s sure to be a special night.

Editor’s Note: Quotations from this video were drawn from an interview with Jane Carver conducted by students from St. Joseph’s University’s Beautiful Social program in collaboration with the Schuylkill Center. An excerpt from this piece was published in our summer newsletter in June 2017.

Prescribing Nature in Philadelphia

By Aaliyah Green Ross, Director of Education

Dr. Chris Renjilian, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) pediatrician, sees nature and play as essential parts of his primary care practice. But he worries that his guidance isn’t always enough. NaturePHL is about to change that. With NaturePHL, pediatricians like Dr. Renjilian will be prescribing nature to children across the city.

This summer marks the official launch of NaturePHL, a collaborative program that helps Philadelphia children and families achieve better health through outdoor activity. It’s a collaborative involving four core partners – the Schuylkill Center, CHOP, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, and the United States Forest Service. It’s a new website indexing all parks, trails, and green spaces in the city, so anyone can search their neighborhood for places to be outdoors. But NaturePHL is most importantly a toolkit that pediatricians will use to prescribe outdoor activity and time in nature. This innovative program is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania.

The program will launch in two CHOP clinics, ultimately reaching 21,000 children over a three-year pilot. This intervention is dearly needed to reconnect families with the outdoors.

The last several decades have seen a substantial shift in the way most U.S. children interact with both natural and built environments. One recent study says that for children ages 6-17, the average weekly time spent engaged in outdoor activities decreased from one hour and 40 minutes in 1982 to only 50 minutes in 2003; current trends suggest the amount is even lower today. In short, childhood has moved indoors, with significant health impacts.

The same study concluded that time spent looking at screens and other sedentary behaviors dramatically increased over the same time period, a trend that the Centers for Disease Control has linked to the rise in childhood obesity rates. Children who are sedentary and obese are more likely to suffer from a range of medical problems, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, and psychological issues including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

But there are solutions: Active, outdoor play has been shown to have positive effects on several health indicators, from reduced stress and better sleep to improved focus and self-control.  A 2009 study by the EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research found lower incidence of 15 diseases—including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines—in people who lived within a half mile of green space.

The potential to leverage nature and outdoor activity for betting health is what first drew the Schuylkill Center to reach out to CHOP in 2013 and open the conversation that, four years later became NaturePHL. The tools developed for NaturePHL will aid physicians in helping their patients change sedentary and indoor behaviors for free play and time outdoors. And there is plenty of space to do so.

Of Philadelphia’s nearly 91,000 acres, green spaces account for over 10,000 acres, about 12% of the city’s land. Despite the abundance of open spaces to engage in outdoor play, many of our city’s kids don’t get the daily 60 minutes of physical activity recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The reasons for this  are many: lack of time, safety concerns, and general unawareness of local green spaces were among the most common barriers identified by families participating in NaturePHL’s focus groups.

Knowing that connecting more children with better health through nature would depend on successfully overcoming these barriers, a NaturePHL team of pediatricians developed a way to integrate a discussion of outdoor activity into annual well-child visits. If a clinician determines that a child needs to spend more time outdoors, they will offer counseling and issue a prescription to play at a park, go for a bike ride, or take a walk around their neighborhood, among other outdoor activities. To make it easier for parents, pediatricians will offer educational materials with suggested activities and strategies to make spending time outside more feasible for their family.nature for young 017

“Our city’s many vibrant parks and green spaces can be a part of every child’s prescription for health and wellness,” says Dr. Khoi Dang, a pediatrician based in the CHOP South Philadelphia primary care clinic who has been deeply involved in planning and developing NaturePHL.

But providing a toolkit to talk about outdoor activity and issue nature prescriptions alone won’t be sufficient to achieve the program’s goals. We also need to support patient families in their efforts to fulfill prescriptions. This is where the Nature Navigator comes in.

Like social workers who help asthma patients adhere to recommendations, the Nature Navigators are community health workers trained to serve as liaisons between clinics and patients, helping patients access health services and motivating them to practice healthy behaviors. We’re excited to be hiring one Nature Navigator this summer, who will follow up with patient families receiving nature prescriptions to help them spend more time outdoors, and will even meet with families to lead children in outdoor activities to help make nature time part of their daily lives.

This is central to the Schuylkill Center’s work. In our vision statement we imagine “a world where all people learn, play, and grow with nature as a part of their everyday lives.” With a program like NaturePHL, we’re able to reach  new audiences and connect many thousands of children with nature in a new way. At the same time, the program will help the Schuylkill Center reach a more ethnically and economically diverse group of people. CHOP’s Cobbs Creek and Karabots primary care clinics serve a largely African-American client base – a demographic that hasn’t traditionally participated in our programs much.

In addition, the Schuylkill Center and Parks and Recreation are creating new programs designed to help families be in nature. Some will be NaturePHL-branded, with clinicians leading hikes or nature play, at parks and green spaces around the city.

These events will be searchable from the NaturePHL website, naturephl.org, developed by local design studio P’unk Ave, making it easier for doctors and patients to identify ways to spend time outside. At the same time, the website’s reach goes beyond the children receiving nature prescriptions. For anyone looking to enjoy time outdoors in Philadelphia, naturephl.org offers a way to search parks by amenities such as events, wheelchair and stroller accessibility, nearby SEPTA routes, playground equipment, picnic tables, and other features.

The website also provides a unique platform for partnerships with several community organizations, adding value to the site and broadening the program’s reach. Partnering with the Clean Air Council’s new program, Go Philly Go, NaturePHL will include multimodal transportation options and directions on each park page.  Another collaboration with Philly Fun Guide allows us to list events happening at parks and green spaces throughout the city, elevating opportunities for patient families to engage in outdoor activities.

Above all, NaturePHL is at the frontier of environmental education and healthcare. Integrating these two seemingly disparate sectors, the program will also serve as a national model.

A press conference to announce the official launch of NaturePHL will be held on Wednesday, July 26 at Cobbs Creek Recreation Center, and the first nature prescriptions will be issued at CHOP’s Cobbs Creek and Roxborough primary care clinics starting August 1. We are thrilled to see this program come into fruition after nearly four years of planning, research, and collaboration. We invite you to join in by visiting www.naturephl.org to plan your next family nature outing!

NaturePHL is supported in part by the Barra Foundation and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. An excerpt from this piece was published in our summer newsletter in June 2017.

About the Author

Aaliyah Ross joined the Schuylkill Center as Director of Education in March. She enjoys flipping rocks in Smith’s Run while looking for salamanders, and discovering new parks to explore with her 4-year old daughter.

Citizen Science: at the Schuylkill Center and Beyond

By Guest contributor Anna Forrester

Seven years ago, my partner and I became the enthusiastic owners of an abandoned farm in central Pennsylvania. The property included an early 20th century bank barn, complete with a resident colony of bats. Reports of white nose syndrome and its devastating effects on the area’s bat populations had recently begun appearing in the media and – though we hadn’t had any up-close, intimate experience with our bats — we soon found ourselves working to help track the spread of the disease and the fate of our bats by participating in the Appalachian Bat Count (ABC).

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Our barn is a maternity colony, meaning a group of female bats congregate there during the warm months to birth, wean, and raise their pups. Doing counts involves regularly laying on our backs next to a campfire at dusk counting as the bats emerge from the cracks and crevices of the barn’s siding.

Each year we follow the ABC researchers’ bat counting protocols, doing both pre-volant counts (before pups begin flying) and post-volant counts (after they’ve begun to fly out alongside their mothers). We fill out forms as we go and, at the end of the season, send our data off.

Laying there next to the fire with my husband, daughters and various other friends is soothing and peaceful – it’s a great way to end a day. We are watchful and present, full of anticipation and hope. I emphasize the word hope, here, because hope is the balloon I find myself gripping ever more tightly as my worries about the impacts on our planet of unbridled human activity and of climate change keep growing – and as our current administration turns a blind eye.

Big Brown Bat with Fishing Tackle

 

When we started the counts, I had never heard of “citizen science,” a term which has been showing up more and more lately. It has been redefined and massaged repeatedly in recent years — the 2014 Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘citizen science’ as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” I quickly realized that our counts qualified.

Citizen science is distinct from nature study, science-related advocacy, and environmental activism, in that it focuses on generating or gathering data. But it overlaps with and is integrally connected to all these other endeavors too.  Henry David Thoreau noted the bloom times of plants around Walden Pond in the 1850 in his journal – creating what today is often cited as an example of early (if unintentional) citizen science — as have similar notes taken by members of the Smiley family at the Mohonk Preserve in the Catskills. The information gathered in the name of ‘nature study’, then, have proven to be invaluable ‘data’, today, for scientists studying climate change.

There are all sorts of ways to get involved in citizen science on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center: the Toad Detour (through the end of the month), the winter and spring bird census and the annual butterfly count (July 6 this year) all offer great hands-on ways to engage in citizen science, as do the Senior Environmental Corps’ water quality testing program and various of the art installations and art programs on site.

In January, LandLab artist Leslie Birch wrote about related arts-oriented practices and organizations that she connected with through work she did at the Center: PublicLab and The Center for Artistic Activism .

And the SciStarter website, brainchild of Philadelphian and science cheerleader Darlene Cavalier, offers hundreds of projects that let lay people help practicing scientists do their work. A sort of clearinghouse for projects that are looking for help, SciStarter has something for every age, interest area, location and activity level (there is plenty of citizen science you can even do without ever leaving your home).

Technology – thanks to the internet’s hyper-connectivity and to the advent of less expensive  equipment — has exponentially increased the possibilities and potential for us to do citizen science. Data can be transferred quickly and easily from anyplace — and anyone — with a cell phone and cellular reception; the same data is easily tagged with locational information through GIS systems; and digital photographic images cost little to produce and are more easily shared then print photography. And the astronomical amount of data generated, once received, can be managed and analyzed with complex and fast computer programs.

A four part series, The Crowd and the Cloud recently aired on PBS, offering a great introduction to the field and to technology’s role in it. (You can stream all four episodes; the second one is especially topical, focusing as it does on Philadelphia’s drinking water.)

CROWD & CLOUD screenshot

If you’re interested in bats, please: track down a bat roost and start a count. Wildlife Biologist Nate Zalik, who coordinates the Appalachian Bat Count, tells me that they have data from every county in Pennsylvania except Philadelphia County. I know for a fact that we have bats here – so let’s take this as a challenge! For information on how to find a location and when to count, go here.

For me, and for many practitioners of citizen science, getting involved to help scientists understand problems and come up with solutions is very much an act of hope and of imagining better possibilities and futures. We Schuylkill Center supporters, frequenters and volunteers all love the natural world. By taking action – finding small (and large) ways to help scientists find solutions to the myriad, complex problems we are facing – we actively hold onto and nurture hope — which, I think, is one of the most important thing we can do right now.

headshot straightAbout the Author
Anna Forrester sits on the Schuylkill Center’s Art Advisory Committee. She is trained as a landscape architect, and also writes children’s books. Her picture book, BAT COUNT  (Arbordale, 2017), is a story about bats, white nose syndrome, citizen science and hope. It is available in the Schuylkill Center Gift Shop, on Amazon or through your local independent bookseller.