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Making nature relevant: finding common ground

By Gail Farmer, Director of Education

This April marked the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, and we have come a long way since that huge 1970 event. But clearly, we have a long way to go: a recent study by the National Environmental Education Foundation found that two-thirds of the public fails even a basic environmental quiz and a whopping 88% cannot pass a basic energy quiz. This same study found that 45 million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water and 130 million believe that hydropower is America’s top energy source.

Alarmingly, this environmental literacy gap is widening: people between the ages of 18 and 34 know less about the environment than the previous generation, ages 35 to 54 (Coyle, K. (2005). Environmental Literacy in America.  National Environmental Education and Training Foundation. 100pp). After five decades of environmental education in our schools and in our communities, we must recognize that this growing environmental literacy gap is not simply a matter of education. It’s also a crisis of relevance.

While immersive experiences in nature are a great way to build personal relevance, children today have significantly less direct experience and contact with the outdoor environment than they did even a generation ago. American kids have retreated indoors, spending ⅓ of their time watching screens (7.5 hours/day), but only 1% of their time outside. How can environmental issues be relevant to a generation of youth who have very little direct and meaningful experience in the natural environment?

For the last decade, the Schuylkill Center has been offering programs that provide Philadelphia youth with immersive experiences in nature, experiences which aim to create emotional connections and build relevance – the essential foundation for environmental literacy. Our summer and day-off camps, our after school program, and our Nature Preschool all offer opportunities to connect with nature in a personally meaningful way and on a regular basis. The challenge is that the people who register for our programs are families for whom nature is already relevant. So, how do we get on the radar of everyone else?

Outside of our work with schools, environmental education often fails miserably at reaching beyond “the choir.” How do we reach and engage people for whom nature is not relevant or meaningful? This is a tough one. At the Schuylkill Center, we have outlined a strategy to help us address this challenge. We must expand our messaging beyond what matters to us (healthy ecosystems, environmental literacy), aligning it with broader issues that already matter to the parents, teachers, and community members we are trying to reach. In education, we refer to this as “meeting people where they are.” It’s not about getting them to hear what we have to say; rather, it’s about beginning with what matters to them and finding where our values intersect.

Personal health and well-being, safety, and family are nearly universal values. In addition to public programs that offer immersive nature experiences, our education department has been cultivating partnerships with non-environmental organizations that provide essential services addressing these broad needs.

For example, we are partnering with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, an organization that helps families transition out of homelessness. As they need high-quality childcare services for the children of families they serve, the Schuylkill Center provides these children with spaces in our summer and day-off camps. I have recently been giving talks about the health and wellness benefits of nature, and have been contacted by people working in mental health, social services, and health care who are interested in providing nature experiences for their patient populations because of the positive cognitive, physical and emotional health impacts. So the Roxborough pediatric clinic of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia brings groups of patients to the Center for “Walk with a Doc” trail hikes. Such collaborations are the key to reaching beyond our base and an important pathway towards a larger and more diverse “choir.”

So as we move into the next 50 years of programming, we are looking to offer more nature-health connections like wellness walks, and outdoor yoga. We’re continuing to offer immersive nature programs. We’re also looking to build more partnerships with non-environmental, groups. But above all, we’re looking for common ground.

Note: This piece was originally published in the Schuylkill Center’s members newsletter, Quill, in summer 2015.

Natural paintbrush painting at Naturepalooza.

Nature Preschool loves Earth Day

Children Need NatureBy Shannon Dryden, Nature Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

At Nature Preschool, our children are immersed in outdoor experiences daily, connecting them to their surroundings and the Schuylkill Center in a meaningful way.  At events like Naturepalooza, the children show their expanding knowledge and the bonds created through open-ended exploration.  Learning through play and touching, feeling, smelling, tasting, and hearing is what these children do best and it brings joy and happiness in many ways.  Just look at the smiles!  Below, some highlights from Earth Day and Naturepalooza with our preschool.

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

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Earth Day and the Green Tsunami

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

On Wednesday, April 22, 1970, 45 years ago today, more than 20 million Americans participated in the largest mass demonstration in American history, some 1 million in New York City alone.  They marched wearing gas masks and buried cars in mock graves protesting polluted air, threw buckets of dead fish into the lobbies of corporate offices to protest polluted water, and carried signs with grim messages like “RIP: Earth.”

It was the first Earth Day.  Reflecting back, it’s too easy to forget how angry people were about a polluted planet back in 1970.

In Philadelphia, thousands gathered on Belmont Plateau for speakers like Edmund Muskie, then a leading presidential contender, and beat poet Allen Ginsberg, honoring the intention of creating a “national environmental teach-in” as envisioned by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, father of the event.

As a middle schooler on Long Island, I organized a litter cleanup in my town’s park. Bitten by the environmental bug then, I knew I’d be doing environmental work now.

Fast forward 20 years. On Saturday, April 22, 1990, 120,000-plus people crammed into Fairmount Park under a picture-perfect day for a family-oriented festival of music, games, speeches, food and more.  Here’s an irony: Earth Day 1990 shut down the Schuylkill for hours, and the crowd left behind mountains of unrecyclable trash.  Oops.

But  more than 200 million people from 141 countries participated, the largest mass event in world history.

This year?  Thousands already joined Usher, will.i.am, Mary J. Blige, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on the Mall in DC last weekend, while 2,500 runners joined the Clean Air Council’s Run for Clean Air, our city’s longest running Earth Day event.  It’s the “Phillies Red Goes Green” event tonight in the stadium, and hundreds of groups are hosting Earth Day activities bookending these two weekends, like my Schuylkill Center’s Naturepalooza festival on Saturday.

And 1 billion people—1 in 7 worldwide—from 200 countries will participate.  Surprise: Earth Day is suddenly one of the world’s largest nonreligious observances.

Dismiss Earth Day if you will—and many do—you have to give it this: the day has staying power, and a heckuva track record.  1970’s massive demonstration jumpstarted the modern environmental movement, a raft of environmental groups like Friends of the Earth were founded, Nixon caved to mounting pressure and signed bills creating the EPA, impact statements, and the endangered species act, and thousands of kids like me went into environmental careers.  Almost every curbside recycling program is brought to you courtesy of 1990’s toned-down Earth Day, as are dolphin-safe tuna, recycled paper products, and Rio’s Earth Summit.

Since we are much better counter-punching than planning, 1970’s Earth Day was a reaction to the Santa Barbara oil spill, DDT and eggshell thinning, Lake Erie being declared biologically dead, lead from gasoline lowering people’s IQ.  1990 in turn was a counter-punch to medical waste washing up alongside dead dolphins, Yellowstone burning under a fierce drought, and NASA scientist James Hanson testifying in Congress that the world was warming, the first scientist to do so.

It’s easy to see what 2020 will be in reaction to: in the next five years, new data—not to mention, say, a giant iceberg calving off the Antarctic shelf—will likely end the 25-year debate on climate change, the disappearance of a charismatic species like the rhinoceros will call make biodiversity a top-tier issue, and horrific droughts here and floods there will signal the emergence of water as a central concern.

The environment likely surfaces—finally!—as a core issue in that year’s presidential election.

So Earth Day 2020’s confluence of big anniversary with monstrous problems will cause the day to explode, and more than 2 billion of us—double this year—will participate, easily a low-ball estimate.

For a green tsunami is coming, a tidal wave of concern for the fate of an imperiled planet.  And love it or loathe it, Earth Day will be at the heart of that tsunami.

The day is here to stay, and will only get bigger.  Happy Earth Day.

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Open-ended learning in nature

childrenneednature-01By Shannon Dryden, Nature Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

Crack, splash, plop, and snap – followed by sounds of children laughing as they explore the melting ice at Polliwog Pond.  “Look at this piece, I can see through it!” Next up, “I’m selling ice. Who wants a piece?” as an ice display is quickly assembled. A group of nearby preschoolers responds, “I do.  I do.” Then, the adventures begin as the children carefully select the perfectly shaped piece of ice for their next escapade. A natural material provides inspiration and imagination amongst the children. Continue reading

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Winterfest with Nature Preschool: Winter, Stars, & Nature Crafts

childrenneednature-01By Shannon Dryden, Nature Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

Stars are a practical and magical symbol for children and adults alike. They are a mystery of the sky, full of gas, providing us with light, and are still something that we don’t yet fully understand. They are a symbol of hope, something to wish upon, or a picture to represent many holiday celebrations this time of year. With the dawn of the winter season upon us and the upcoming winter solstice, Schuylkill Center just held its annual Winterfest, a star themed family event welcoming Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool families and community members alike to join together in discussion, crafts and night hikes.

After spending the first part of the year getting to know one another, the Sweet Gums and Sycamores now are more comfortable at Schuylkill Center with their families, teachers, and friends. They now feel connected to the Center and acknowledge their roles as learners, planners, and leaders in their environmental interaction. We decided to share our experiences, and give the public a chance to get a sneak-peek at Nature Preschool by offering a special craft activity at Winterfest.

In preparation for Winterfest, the preschoolers began the week talking about the event, this special occasion to celebrate the changing of seasons. This prompted them to take the lead in sharing ideas for crafts and what we could do on that day. We shared the theme of stars with the children and invited them to tell us what they know about stars. The children immediately began saying things like, “They are big!”, “They are hot”, “Some are yellow and some are not!” Their curiosity was piqued as they began asking questions such as “How many stars are there?” Continue reading

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Giants of the Forest: Reading the forest

By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Tuliptree (1)Every day at the Schuylkill Center I am reminded of the passing of time, the history of the land, and the immense power of plants to change our landscape.  Amazed at how the trees could grow so tall in just 50 years, I stand in awe of the towering tulip poplars (also called tuliptrees) which rise high above old fields once clear cut for agriculture.  As winter approaches and vegetation retreats, ruins and farm walls of old homesteads – signs of literally hundreds of years of human occupancy – reveal themselves as markers of the past.

Tuliptree (2)Trees can also be a source of information to us; they are simultaneously signs of resilience and indicators of land use patterns.  Some of our oldest, biggest trees are situated just at the edges of former farm fields, where they could stretch and branch in all directions due to unlimited sunlight.  In the forest, the same species would be taller and thinner, with branches reaching directly up toward the sun shining through a break in the forest canopy.  For many years, these remarkable old trees have drawn interest from visitors, staff, and volunteers at the Schuylkill Center.

In the summer of 1974, volunteer Gus Wiencke assembled an extensive report entitled “Biggest Trees at the Schuylkill Valley Nature Center,” detailing land history and size, species, location, and even sketches of growth patterns of the property’s largest trees.  The original survey presents 57 trees that measure over 6 ½ feet in circumference, although many far exceed that now.  The survey was partially updated in 1986 and again in 2012, when eight more trees were added to the list.

It has been 40 years since Gus compiled this list of biggest trees, yet I’m experiencing his observations in a similar way these days.  He concludes, “Year after year, traces of the old farm fields grow dimmer and a forest spreads in the protected haven of the Nature Center.  Our biggest trees are the aristocrats in a unique, unviolated area of self-propagated woodland.”  These trees exist with little help from us, and in many cases, perhaps, in spite of us.  They are beautiful and vital beings in our ever-changing landscape.  Join us at the Giants of the Forest walk in January to see some of these big trees, learn about why they remained during the farm years, and find out what they can tell us about the past.

Note: an excerpt from this article appeared in the winter 2014-2015 Quill, the Schuylkill Center members newsletter.

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Weaving Art into Nature

By Ezra Tischler, Public Relations and Environmental Art Intern

LandLab resident artists Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya Levy, of WE THE WEEDS, have been busy collecting invasive plants like oriental bittersweet, mile-a-minute, wisteria, Japanese stiltgrass, and bush honeysuckle at the Schuylkill Center. These gathered vines are then woven together using hand-built looms, creating beautiful tapestries of varying color and texture. Be sure to check out their guest blog post detailing the process and progress of their botanical weaving project.

Zya, taking full advantage of her resident artist title, recently spent some time exploring the Schuylkill Center’s property. Her exploration resulted in some impromptu land art capturing the transitory nature of autumn. Dried grasses and fallen vines clumped together in mounds may not catch the eye of most meadow visitors. Zya, however, saw the mounds as an opportunity to create temporary nests. Here is a gallery of some of the nests, but they won’t last long and are certainly worth seeing in person:

Zya also met with visiting groups from Nature Preschool, inviting the children to try their hand at botanical weaving:

 

Cattail Pond

Restoring Cattail Pond


By Melissa Nase, Manager of Land Stewardship

Toad in Cattail PondCattail Pond sits in a serene, sunlit woodland opening at the edge of our forest, just a few quick steps outside our back door.  It is a special place, nestled into one of the few areas on the property that is free from undulating topography, naturally protected by a steep slope uphill from it and surrounding trees.  Taking all of this into consideration, it’s not surprising that there are also ruins of a barn near the pond, part of a former homestead and a reminder of the rich history of this land. Continue reading

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All About Apples

childrenneednature-01By Shannon Dryden, Preschool Manager and Sweet Gum Classroom Lead Teacher

The beginning of the year at preschool means apples!  For most preschools, this is also the case, but at Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool, an interest in apples developed from enjoying apples snacks to the preschoolers’ observations along the trails.  Playing and exploring outside led to a deeper association with apples.

10.1 RD6As both classes walked along various trails (getting to know our outdoor community), they started classifying the types of trees with their teachers’ help, by looking at the shape of the leaves, the bark, and branches.  Inspired by the changing colors and fall, the children have also been talking about activities like apple picking, visiting a farm, and going on nature hikes with their families.  We noticed children bringing in apples at lunch, which sparked conversations about where apples come from.  This gave the class an idea – let’s visit the orchard.  What you may not know is that the Schuylkill Center property includes a small intimate crab apple orchard that blossoms with color and fruit this time of year.

We asked the children what an orchard was and they shared many ideas including, “it’s a group of trees” or “I’ve been to an orchard.  There are apples there!” We continued to guide the children in critical thinking by asking, “Where do apples come from?”  Using this new interest in apples, we led the children through a special cooking activity for Back to School Night.  We followed a recipe and enjoyed measuring, scooping, pouring, and mixing the ingredients.  Each class used an apple peeler and corer and combined cinnamon and apples in a crock pot to create applesauce. Continue reading

Educators dressed as nocturnal animals (1988).

Trick-or-Treating Through the Years

By Ezra Tischler, Arts and PR Intern

Halloween hikers gather before heading out on a night walk (1977).

Halloween hikers gather before heading out on a night walk (1977).

The forest can be a scary place at night. Its unfamiliar sounds reach out from the darkness, telling a nocturnal tale we humans seldom hear. However, the nighttime forest is full of much more than fright. By the light of moon, the forest comes alive.  Owls screech and hoot; frogs croak; skunks, raccoons, and opossums forage through the forest floor; bats flap about in search of something to eat. A wondrously active forest is born each night.

At the Schuylkill Center we explore just how amazing, and un-scary, the nighttime forest is with one of our most popular programs ever, Halloween Hikes and Hayrides. Established nearly 30 years ago, Halloween Hikes and Hayrides is now our longest running program ever! Families walk through our candlelit forest in search of educators dressed as nocturnal animals. Each animal—a skunk, raccoon, bat, fox, opossum, frog, and owl—tells their wild night-life story to our guests.

Educators dressed as nocturnal animals (1988).

Educators dressed as nocturnal animals (1988).

I spent some time last week looking through the Schuylkill Center’s extensive photo archive searching for evidence of the first Halloween Hikes and Hayrides. Though it was difficult to pinpoint the very first Halloween Hike, I was able to find some photos and negatives from hikes dating as far back as 1977. Mike, our director, says he doesn’t remember Halloween Hikes and Hayrides under that name from his first stint at the Schuylkill Center, but it’s clear the tradition is a long one.  Halloween Hikes & Hayrides has grown a lot since its inception. One photo shows about a dozen-or-so hikers gathering before heading to the forest. Last year we took to the forest with around 300 hikers in attendance!

Carving pumpkins (1977).

Carving pumpkins (1977).

Another photo from 1977 shows children enjoying a pumpkin carving session; we won’t have pumpkin carving at this year’s event, but there will be pumpkins for painting–a favorite in recent years. One of the earliest photos of anyone in costume shows our educators dressed as friendly nocturnal animals, it’s dated 1988. I was only a newborn in 1988, but I’m excited to join this year’s Halloween Hike as a costumed educator. More than anything, I can’t wait to see our forest trails dappled in candle light. I hear that alone is worth the price of admission.

Join us on October 24th and 25th for the Halloween Hikes and Hayrides, from 6:00—10:00 pm. Aside from the magical walk through our woods, enjoy a hayride along a woodland road, a campfire and s’mores, and pumpkin painting too. For more information click here.

Ezra joins the Schuylkill Center as an intern in the Environmental Art and Public Relations Department. He is pursuing a Master of Environmental Studies degree at the University of Pennsylvania.  Ezra enjoys riding his bike along the Schuylkill River Trail, exploring his South Philly neighborhood, and playing with his Beagle, Homer.