playscape_nb_9-21-16 (7)

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

Children playing in field

My Path to Nature Education

By Nicole Brin, Sycamore Classroom Lead Teacher

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Pennsylvania Land Trust Association for their series on conserved lands, like the Schuylkill Center, in communities around the state.

Rows of stuffed animals- bears, bunnies, dogs, lions- all lined up in the grass of my suburban Connecticut backyard as they got ready to start their school day. Their teacher, eight-year-old me, prepared to teach them all the things that I already knew in the wisdom of my few childhood years. I made attendance sheets, created lesson, and planned field trips to the garden behind our shed. I knew that one day I’d be a real teacher, sharing all the cool things I loved about life. Continue reading

Hidden Life of a Toad Cover

Book Review: The Hidden Life of a Toad

By Claire Morgan, Volunteer Coordinator

Doug Wechsler’s children’s book The Hidden Life of a Toad (Charlesbridge, hardcover, 2017), released just this week, explores what happens in this mysterious process called metamorphosis – from eggs to tadpoles, tadpoles to toads. Amazing photos and descriptions walk you through this phenomenon day-by-day. Doug has witnessed the annual event of toad migration that takes place each spring at the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve, across the street from the Schuylkill Center, where they spend the winter in the forest. Each year volunteers gather for Toad Detour, a citizen scientists program to help the toads to safety cross the road, at Hagy’s Mill Road and Port Royal Avenue, to get to their spring breeding grounds. It is not unusual to see Doug on the ground focusing his camera and waiting for the perfect photo of the American Toad as they cross the road. As volunteer coordinator, I’ve spent the past six springs helping toads cross Port Royal Ave – and educating volunteers and the public about this Roxborough phenomenon. Still, I learned lots of things about the American Toad by reading this book!

We always knew some of the basics from watching toads come out of the woods and cross the road to get to the other side, which in this case was the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve. We knew they loved that shallow water in which to lay their eggs. We knew the males would often follow the females toward the breeding ground and sometimes catch a ride along the way by finding the female of their choice before crossing the road. Continue reading

Kids walking on the beach

Put that phone away!

By Damien Ruffner, School Programs Manager

June 29th, 2007 changed the world forever: This is not the date of a presidential election, or the start or end of a military conflict. It’s not the day humans first traveled into space, or discovered some profound scientific theory. Think smaller, about 4 inches to be exact. It’s the date the first iPhone was released. And here we are, one decade into the smartphone generation.

The aspect of my position at the Schuylkill Center that takes up the most time every year is the Adventure Treks summer camp program, and specifically the 10-12 year old camp group. This means this upcoming summer, for the first time, I’m going to have kids coming to my most popular program that have never existed in a world without a smartphone. Older generations are in a constant struggle with these kids and their blasted phones. “Put those away!” “Am I going to have to confiscate that?” “No phones will be allowed on this trip.”

I’ll admit that I am guilty of saying a few of these phrases in my career as an educator. But is it the right way? It’s a question I struggle with constantly. If a 10 year-old comes to camp this year with a phone, how can I tell him or her that they can’t have it? Their whole life has been integrated with this device. It’s used in schools. Complicated schedules are logged and tracked. They have pictures of their friends, contact information for their parents or guardians. It’s a 21st century security blanket. Think about it like this: What if you went to a camp and the person in charge said there was going to be no running water or indoor bathrooms at this camp. And it’s simply that way because whoever was in charge didn’t have running water at camp when they were younger, and neither should you. In other words, it’s the “right” way to experience summer camp. Things have changed, and as educators, we have to adapt. Continue reading

Ben Franklin Bridge Walkway

On The Circuit: 6th annual Richard L. James lecture

By Elisabeth Zafiris, Acting Director of Education

On February 23rd the Schuylkill Center will welcome Robert Thomas, a founder and principal of Campbell Thomas & Co. Architects and Planners, as our 6th Annual Richard L. James Lecturer. This year we’ll be talking about The Circuit – a remarkable network spanning the region and connecting urban, suburban, and rural communities.

Thomas dedicated over 40 years advocating for parks, trails, and greenways, planning and building the green infrastructure that Philadelphians and visitors are fortunate enough to call their own. Thomas served on the original committee that created the Schuylkill River Trail, and was involved in drawing the first maps of The Circuit, an ever-growing network of regional trails. A lifelong cyclist, Thomas himself knows how important these trails are; for decades, Thomas has biked everywhere he goes, never owning a car. The Circuit Coalition, in turn, brings together 72 organizations to promote these 750 miles of trails. Continuing this work, Thomas advocated for bikes to be allowed on SEPTA trains, working alongside the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia. It’s safe to say that he’s a strong champion for the rich trail system we enjoy today.

Thomas brings his rich experience and perspective on trail systems to the annual lecture. He’ll discuss how The Circuit was created and regional vision to “Connect The Circuit” by linking all 750 miles of trails. Turning our attention to the future, Thomas will explore the coalition that has gathered around The Circuit and discuss the trail system’s future.

The Circuit trails are of special interest to the Schuylkill Center – our property borders the immensely popular Schuylkill River Trail. At the James Lecture Executive Director Mike Weilbacher will share details how the Center’s master plan invigorates our connection to the Schuylkill River Trail.

In the meantime, visit us – and come via the River Trail! Thomas recommends taking the Septa Manayunk/Norristown line to the Miquon station, walking the River Trail to the Schuylkill Center’s back entrance, and then walking up the back of the property – it’s route he recently took himself, and one that demonstrates what he thinks is the future for transportation – a linkage of cycling, public transit, trails, and roads that serve all people and places.

Past James lecturers include Kenneth Finch who spoke about the importance of keeping nature play in children’s lives in 2013 – coinciding with the announcement of our Nature Preschool, which opened later that year. In 2014, Dr. Michael Suk discussed the health benefits of nature; and, in 2015, Sarah Wu, of the city’s Office of Sustainability, walked a crowded auditorium through how climate change will affect Philadelphia’s future. The Richard L. James Lecture is an opportunity to think deeply about important environmental and regional issues, and this year’s lecture will be no exception.

This essay first appeared in the Winter 2017 Quill, our members’ newsletter.

Nature preschoolers treat penguin doll at play clinic

Children Need Nature: An Emergent Curriculum Study

Children Need NatureBy Kristina Eaddy, Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

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

Why do leaves change colors? What is under the frozen ice? And where do birds go during the winter? These are questions we hear every day, as Nature Preschool teachers. Young children’s minds are full of wonders and questions, trying to learn about, connect with, and understand the world they are surrounded by.

At Nature Preschool, we nurture this natural curiosity in young children by following the emergent curriculum approach. The goal of an emergent curriculum is to create meaningful learning experiences that capture children’s passion, foster inquiry-based experiences, and instill a love for learning. In contrast to a traditional, thematic-teaching approach, topics are not pre-planned in advance nor are they conducted in one- or two-week increments. Instead, a subject of study arises from the interests and developmental needs of the children in a group at any given time. A study can last anywhere from a couple of days to weeks, or even months, depending on how long the interest in the topic persists.

Continue reading

Plants on classroom windowsill

Bringing Nature into the Classroom

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.”

PlayscapeChallengers_RD_12-19-16 001

Children Need Nature: Teaching Peace

Children Need NatureBy Rebecca Dhondt, Sassafras Classroom Lead Teacher

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

This time of year tends to be full of excitement and energy.  With so much baking, decorating, and visiting going on there are many stories that Nature Preschoolers are eager to share.  Children naturally begin to compare notes, trying to understand what is happening in their own homes and wondering about the ways others might celebrate teachers in the Sassafras room heard exclamations such as: “I have a Christmas tree too!”, “What is an Elf on the Shelf?” and “How do you play dreidel?”

An early way to help introduce children to cultural inclusion is to build on this natural interest in holidays.  This year the Sassafras class has spent time exploring Hanukkah, Christmas, Winter Solstice, and Kwanzaa.  We have welcomed visitors, read books, played games, sung songs, cooked traditional treats, and had many lively discussions.    The children love learning new things, finding similarities and differences.  After learning about the seven concepts of Kwanzaa one of the preschoolers said: “We don’t celebrate Kwanzaa, but we still care about all those things!” Continue reading

Leaf storting activity

Children Need Nature: Getting Ready for Kindergarten

Leaf storting activityBy Shannon Wise, Nature Preschool Manager

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

Children Need NatureIf you walk along the trails with a Nature Preschool class, you might think you are just out for a breath of fresh air, to run and let go of some extra energy. Yes – it is that and so much more. You might notice children gathering leaves, counting as they go. Their teacher furthers the experience as she takes out four-colored pieces of construction paper to allow the children to sort by shades of fall. Soon, the children are discussing the attributes of each leaf as they categorize these natural objects. Expanding vocabulary can be heard as each child describes the shape or what makes the leaf they are holding unique. Throughout the experience, they are navigating space, taking turns in conversation, learning to wait to place their leaf until their friend is finished – all important social skills needed for the next step in their school journey. They are all a crucial piece of that term: readiness. Readiness for kindergarten, or the step after preschool, does not just mean knowing your letters and numbers. It is so much more and the transition can seem so overwhelming.

In Philadelphia and the surrounding area, there are many options for kindergarten. From public to charter, private to progressive, the choices can seem endless. This is great but is scary for a first-time parent or even a caregiver who is unsure of what type might be best for their child. When the door is opened up to the wide range of kindergarten schools out there, there are many aspects of readiness to consider; most importantly, are all of the players involved ready: the child, the family, the school, and even the community. Continue reading

Carole William-Green 2016 Meigs Award Winner

Introducing Carole Williams-Green

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On November 17, the Schuylkill Center presents the 11th annual Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award, given to leaders who reflect the spirit and vision of Schuylkill Center founder Henry Meigs.

CCCEEC ribbon cuttingThis year, we honor Carole Williams-Green, the dynamic founder of the Cobbs Creek Community Environmental Education Center in West Philadelphia.  A former public school teacher and administrator, she has led a successful multi-decade effort to rehabilitate the historic but abandoned Fairmount Park Police stables in Fairmount Park’s Cobbs Creek section, creating a center to bring environmental education to under-served neighborhoods like her own West Philadelphia.  Founded in 1991, the center opened its doors in 2001.

After being presented the award, Williams-Green will join a panel discussing environmental education and under-served audiences.  As we go to press, panelists include Jerome Shabazz, founder and executive director of the Overbrook Environmental Center, and Lamar Gore, refuge manager of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, Tarsha Scovens, founder of Let’s Go Outdoors, and Karen Young of the Fairmount Water Works. Continue reading