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2018 is the Year of Water

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By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”
Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

Water is essential, both to our planet and to our programming. School groups search for living creatures in our ponds while Nature Preschoolers stomp through puddles and play in the mud kitchen. Summer campers hike along creeks, raft in whitewater, and snorkel in the ocean, while University of Nature adults discuss global water issues.

This will happen even more in the New Year, as 2018 will be the Year of Water across our programming. We’ll begin with the Richard L. James Lecture on February 8, inviting six prominent thinkers to talk about water and end next November, when the Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award is given to a visionary regional leader whose work revolves around water. Continue reading

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Children Need Nature: The Art of Tree Climbing

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By Alyssa Maley, Lead Preschool Teacherchildren_need_nature

Children Need Nature is a monthly blog column from our Nature Preschool program. Read more posts here.

I remember the moment during my childhood when I developed a bond with my favorite climbing tree on my front lawn—a Japanese maple. This tree was particularly challenging because it did not have lower branches. I had to jump up, grab a branch, and then swing my legs up moving my body like a monkey. Then I used my upper body strength to pull myself to begin the vertical climb. I have so many fond memories of tree climbing—I spoke to fairies, peeked into the second story of my house, and observed my world from a higher perspective. I had no adult assistance or supervision; it was just me and my tree. I learned how to listen to the branches—to assess the broken ones, and pick the safe, sturdy ones. I halted my climb when the branches moved quickly in the wind because I was able to assess the risk. I became a successful climber through practice, patience, and perseverance.

Continue reading

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Rain Yard through the years

By Christina Catanese, Director of Environmental Art and Liz Jelsomine, Exhibitions Coordinator

Rain Yard by Stacy Levy at The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

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.

Rain Yard is an interactive artwork by Stacy Levy that has been on display in the Schuylkill Center’s Sensory Garden since October 2013. Rain Yard provides a function of mitigating stormwater runoff from our building, while highlighting the critical role soil and plants play in the water cycle. Its open steel platform allows rain to filter down, plants to grow up, and people to hover somewhere in between. Continue reading

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Children Need Nature: Joining State Standards with Natural Learning

childrenneednature-01-300x212By Nicole Brin, Assistant Director of Early Childhood Education

Children Need Nature is a monthly blog column from our Nature Preschool program. Read more posts here.

pumpkinseedcounting_nb_10-30-17 (1)The inaugural Kindergarten class here at Nature Preschool is deep into its third month of school. If you walk into the classroom you will notice the book corner, art studio, block area, science and math manipulatives, and many other learning centers typical to an Early Childhood classroom. pumpkinseedcounting_nb_10-30-17More likely however, you will be drawn to the more homey aspects of the room–the number line made from acorns and sticks, the wall of photographed discoveries, or the shelf of beetles, millipedes, and other nature treasures. Just like the preschool classes, the (self-proclaimed) Mighty Oak kindergarteners operate on an emergent and inquiry-based curriculum and spend a large portion of their day outside. Kindergarten at the Schuylkill Center is designed to be an extension of the Nature Preschool experience, while integrating the skills and concepts being taught in kindergartens all over Pennsylvania.

So… how does that work? How do the Mighty Oaks enjoy these experiences while still being ready for first grade come June? A large part comes from the way in which the program is approaching the learning standards. Recognizing that the most meaningful learning happens organically and from natural interests, the teachers first take note of which developmental areas are being met as a result of their study of interest. Continue reading

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The Norristown Program: Mentoring the next generation of environmental leaders

By Damien Ruffner, School Programs Manager

In February of 2017 the Schuylkill Center entered a partnership with ESCC, or the Extended School Day Center. A vital program in Norristown, Pennsylvania that provides before-care and after-care for the youth in eight elementary schools in Norristown. Our partnership allows education staff to work with two of these schools to enrich their education while providing mentorship to students.

This Norristown mentorship program is something that is very near and dear to my heart. Not only is it one of the largest and most ambitious outreaches we have done, but the program brings environmental education to an underserved community and reaches a very diverse audience, especially Hispanic and African American students. In essence, the program is simple: during the school year we go twice a week  to Hancock Elementary and Marshall Street Elementary in Norristown, after school as part of the community’s extended school day program. That program, offers themed crafts and games as well as homework help to improve academic performance.

The program is arranged so that students can participate when they want to, choosing to join in. We didn’t want to take these young students away from precious game playing or lego building (this kind of play can be just as vital to their development as formal education is). Last year, every day more students chose to join us for environmental education activities. Continue reading

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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.

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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.

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.

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Nature: Fostering children’s social interactions

Children Need NatureBy Rachel Baltuch, Nature Preschool Teacher

Children Need Nature is a monthly blog column from our nature preschool program. Read more posts here.

While researching the effects of unstructured play time in nature for young children, I discovered that the benefits are vast and encompass most aspects of children’s development. Play time in nature tends to affect children’s cognitive development, which includes intellectual learning, problem solving skills, and creative inquiry, and can lead to increased concentration, greater attention capacities and higher academic performance.[1]  These children also demonstrate “more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often.[2]

Additionally, the benefits of free play time in nature include reduced stress and symptom relief for some children with Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.[3] Lastly, unstructured free time in nature can improve children’s social skills, ranging from increasing children’s positive feeling towards one another, decreasing the amount of bullying and violence between children, increasing children’s imagination and creativity, and increasing their communication and language skills.[4] Continue reading