By Damien Ruffner, School Programs Manager
Here at the Schuylkill Center, we set yearly themes. It doesn’t necessarily dictate all of our goals and events throughout the year. Rather it is an ongoing conversation that the staff members have that consequently is reflected in our programming. In 2015 we marked our 50th anniversary, working these celebrations into many aspects of our work. In 2016 our theme was climate change. For 2017 the conversation around the Center is “What does environmental education look like in the 21st century?” It’s a simple enough question, but the answer is not so simple. We’re so early into this span, and who knows what kind of advancements in technology will shape the later part of the century?
My biggest goal, and first step, in answering this question is reminding people that nature is not “over there.” It’s easy to think that we live in civilization, and nature is some destination. There has been this separation in the 20th century of nature and people. That has to change if we want to move forward with environmental education. The great outdoors is not a place you drive to, pay an admission price to get into, and then take a few pictures of. It’s all around us, all the time. It’s in the trees planted along Ben Franklin Parkway. It’s in the grass behind your house. It’s in the fields we mow to play baseball.
My first introduction to nature was in my classroom. Our principal, and lead teacher, brought the outdoors into our world. She had animal stations that we were in charge of. She had more plant species than I can remember (all native to the Mid-Atlantic region) and it was our responsibility to care for them. When I was younger, I thought it was busy work. Put a ten-year-old in charge of the plants for this week and he can almost babysit himself. It’ll focus his energy and keep him from disrupting class with his friends, as ten-year-olds tend to do. Looking back now I see the true purpose. It was to foster an appreciation of plants and animals I never would have come in contact with. I began to care for these species even though I was never taught a single fact about them. I’d go home and water the wilting plants my mother had on the windowsills. I’d find box turtles in my back yard and return them to the forest. I caught and showed my mother salamanders, much to her dismay, before returning them to the stream that ran through my neighborhood.
The easiest way to foster an appreciation of the outdoors is to simply introduce a student to the natural world. With limited resources, and ever growing testing schedules, a trip to a place like the Schuylkill Center might be out of reach. So I urge all teachers to bring the outdoors inside. Bring some plants in to decorate your room and assign students to take care of them. Bring in a pet like a hamster or snake and keep it in the room where students can not only see it, but get used to it. Make it a part of their everyday lives and slowly, but surely, nature will not be “over there.”