Playing in nature playscape

Do I have your attention?

By Gail Farmer, Director of Education

My son is in first grade and he is struggling. Struggling to sit still, struggling to be quiet, and struggling to give his teacher the long periods of undivided attention the schools are asking of our young children.  His teacher has employed several positive strategies to try and help him meet the school district’s needs:  he has a “wiggly seat” on his chair that helps him to stay in his seat, she has star charts for attending to the teacher, and most recently, a star chart to reward being “calm and quiet.” While I appreciate his teacher’s efforts to address her expectations of him in a positive way, I am dismayed that the school fails to understand their role in his struggles.

In a typical kindergarten or first grade classroom, the children are almost constantly attending – paying attention during morning meeting, to a book being read, to a worksheet to be completed, to the lesson being taught, to the reading and phonics activities, to the art projects.  The ability to direct our attention to a chosen focal point (called “directed attention”) is an incredibly important neurological capacity.  Directed attention is under voluntary control, which means that we can choose to focus our attention and resist our impulses when needed.  These abilities allow us to be perceptive and observant, behave in socially appropriate ways, to be reflective before taking action (i.e. not acting out on every emotion), to sit still, pay attention, and concentrate. Directed attention is hugely important to learning and school success. Continue reading

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Day of Service and Reunion at Nature Preschool

By Shannon Wise, Nature Preschool Manager

Children Need NatureAt Nature Preschool, support the connection among parents, teachers, and the Schuylkill Center as a whole.  Preschool is often an early opportunity for parents to make connections with other families over shared values and interests.  It is our goal to strengthen and foster these relationships through families’ time at the Schuylkill Center.  In our first year running the Nature Preschool program, we hosted a day of service on Dr. Martin Luther King Day. Last year, we invited past preschool families to the Center for a reunion in the spring. Both events were great experiences but as we began reflecting on family’s availability and the idea of connections and service, we were struck by the idea of combining these two events.  Continue reading

Dear 2040: Damien Ruffner wonders about the future

By Damien Ruffner, Program Coordinator: Camps & Afterschool

October 2, 2015

Damien RuffnerDear Future Program Coordinator: Camps & Afterschool,

I hope this letter finds you well. As I sit here wondering what 2040 will look like at the Schuylkill Center, I can’t help but wonder if even the position will exist in that year. I have been here exactly three years as I write this and my title has changed three times in as many years. So I imagine it will continue to grow and evolve as the programing we offer moves forward.

I’m not sure if compensation time will still be in the handbook in 25 years, but I hope it is. Because this position requires a lot of it! I’ve worked 10 hour days, 14 hour days, I’ve slept here at the center, and I’ve worked overnights with kids for 3 or 5 days at a time. The position requires so much energy and dedication. But in my opinion it is clearly the best position to have here. No one does more fun stuff than I get to do. Kayaking, canoeing, parasailing, standup paddle boarding, camping at the most beautiful spots the mid-Atlantic region has to offer. And all of this doesn’t come close to the best part of my job, the kids. I am in the unique position where I not only get to see kids grow, I get to help in the process. Shaping the young minds of the future is such a satisfying thing for me. I’ve been here 3 full years now and have seen some small kids grow into young adult and mature right before my eyes. And my heart swells every time I think of each and every one of them. I hope you love this place as much as I do. I hope you love the early mornings. Mornings when you’re the first one here, working a 10 hour day-off camp and closing the building after everyone has left. Those are the days I’ll remember the most. Those are the days where your dedication and determination will be the only thing you have to rely on. But even with those long days, you get so much more out of the center than you put into it. Working a 10 or 12 hour day would be torture if it was in a hospital, or some corporate office. But here, on these 340 acres, it’s paradise. I hope you take advantage of the outdoor space. Take walks alone. Sit and just be in the presence of nature.

Another perk of my position is I get to work with such a wide range of the community. On a Monday, I might work with a group of Kindergarten students for a “first look at a pond” lesson. Tuesday I’ll work with an AP biology class on water quality and ethical water use. Wednesday I’ll work with a wide range age group from the Philadelphia School teaching about seeds. Then on Thursday and Friday, I’ll run day off camps for 5-12 year olds and take field trips to local outdoor and educational spaces. And finally on Friday night, run a stargazing event for 100+ adults looking to learn a little bit more about our world (And other worlds). It may seem overwhelming at first to think of such a diverse group that you have to reach. But it comes in waves. I started with just one group: our afterschool program, the Monkey-Tail gang. Then as things became more comfortable, more was added to my plate.

I get to be outside every single day. Not most days, not some days, all of them. I think about some positions here and they might spend the entire day indoors. And I feel for those people. If the position evolves to a point where you are stuck inside daily, I beg you to take a step outside every day. I see little point in working in such a magical place without experiencing it daily yourself. Reset with the natural world around you.

Good luck with all of your programming. I can’t imagine the types of programming you’ll offer in 25 years, But I’ll come back and visit. Maybe even my own kids will be a part of it? Who knows?

Damien Ruffner
Program Coordinator: Camps & Afterschool

Editor’s Note: Dear 2040 is a series of blog posts containing some of the letters included in our 50th anniversary time capsule, buried in October 2015.  Throughout the rest of 2015 we’ll be posting some of those letters, sharing what our leaders, thinkers, artists, and Schuylkill Center staff are thinking about the year 2040.  You can read all the posts here.

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Children Need Nature

By Gail Farmer, Director of Education

I was born in 1975, part of Generation X, probably the last generation whose parents felt comfortable sending their kids out into the neighborhood after school.  “Go outside and be back by dinner,” was a common directive from my mother.   Behind my house was an undeveloped hill, and “The Hill” was where my sisters and I went when my mom sent us outdoors.  My childhood was also filled with Girl Scouts, dance classes, and community soccer, but my best memories and my most formative experiences come from the times my mother wanted nothing more than to get me and my sisters out of her hair for a few hours.  The Hill was totally open to our interpretation and needs:  it was a place where we could try to make sense of a complex world by reconstructing it on a smaller scale.  On The Hill we were sometimes brave explorers and other times victims in need of rescue.   The Hill was whatever we needed it to be.

A growing body of research in early childhood development is revealing the critical connection between this type of exposure to nature and the developing brain.  Children who spend immersive time playing in nature tend to be less anxious and better able to focus, and to have fewer health issues and more emotional resilience, than children who don’t.  Nature play allows children to choose their own adventure, based on the amount of challenge and risk they feel ready to take on at any given time. Should I walk across that log?  What will happen if I balance these three sticks?  I want to move this tree stump, can I carry it myself?  Do I need help to move it? Experiences like these are how children build awareness and confidence in their abilities and decision making.  We want our children to have lots of these experiences before they become teens and begin making decisions with more consequences.

The best nature play occurs in places that are near the home, easy for children to get to on a regular basis.  Most people have access to some form of nature, the trouble is that often people don’t “see” the nature in their communities.  For a child, nature can be very small – playing in the dirt sheltered by a bush or playing among the roots of a tree.  Rain, snow, dirt, rocks and sticks are basic elements of nature that provide excellent opportunities for play.   Creating works of art with mud, building snow forts, jumping in puddles, building with sticks and rocks – the possibilities are boundless.

Children’s attraction to nature is instinctive; nature is the primary biological context for our cognitive and physical development.  Our brains have evolved to be responsive to the natural world.  Technology and our culture have evolved far more rapidly than our brains.  Our brains still respond with fear and disgust to spiders and snakes, despite the fact that people are statistically more likely to die from an automobile than a spider.  Our brains still drive us to be attracted to homes near water, despite the fact that in the developed world we can get water in any home simply by turning on the tap.

Nature (on any scale) fires up a child’s developing brain in a way nothing else can, and the benefits last well into adulthood.  Playing in autumn leaves in childhood offers a joyful play opportunity and that rich sensory experience becomes linked with the emotions of that play.  When that child becomes an adult, the earthy smell of autumn leaves, the way they crinkle and crumble under your touch, the colors against the ground, these sights, smells and sounds carry with them those positive feelings from their childhood.

When I think back to my childhood, The Hill dominates my memories.  In reality, I probably spent less time on The Hill than I did at soccer, Girl Scouts, and dance.  It is the power of nature play, linking rich sensory experiences with high emotional stimuli, that makes my childhood experiences on The Hill loom large in my memory.  Every child needs a special nature place, big or small, that meets them where they are and gives them what they need.  And every adult needs to have that special nature place in their heart, connecting them with feelings of peace and joy, whenever they might need it.

This piece was first published on the blog of the Community Design Collaborative on November 11, 2015.10.28 RD15

In the Bird-seed Shelter

Environmental Art at Nature Preschool

Children Need NatureBy Rebecca Dhondt, Sassafras Lead Teacher

When people think of a preschool experience, art almost always comes to mind.  Children need art, not only for the development of their creativity, but as a support for growing cognitive, social, and motor abilities.

children at picnic tableAll high quality preschool programs incorporate art daily. Walking into a typical classroom, parents will see evidence of painting, gluing and sculpture.  Hopefully there will be a well-developed art center with various supplies that are easily accessible to the children.   Also, completed works of art will be clearly labeled and prominently displayed around the room and in the halls.

Our Nature Preschool is no different, except for this: from first inspiration to finished project art always involves nature. Continue reading

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Dear 2040: Climate change activist Richard Whiteford thinks about the future

By Richard Whiteford

Hello. My name is Richard Whiteford. I’m writing to you on August 24, 2015. I’ll turn 69 next month so, if I live to be 94, there’s an outside chance that I can be there when you open this capsule.

In my lifetime I’ve watched humans destroy the world’s biological diversity to the point of increasing the extinction rate to 1000 times the natural background rate from habitat loss and climate change. For instance, fish populations are crashing, agricultural areas worldwide are being decimated by extreme droughts. Many rivers are running dry from the loss of glacial feed. Insect infestations and wildfires are destroying forests because of climate change. Continue reading

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Seed Counting

Children Need NatureBy Shannon Wise, Nature Preschool Manager

Seeds – the beginning of something, the signal of a cycle continuing, a start. With the season of fall upon us, the Schuylkill Center forest has been filled with seeds covering the ground and showing up amongst the trees. For me these seeds symbolize the start of a new school year, the continued pattern of growth and learning for a new set of Sycamores, Sweet Gums, and Sassafras. It is the planting of knowledge and questions for teachers and children here at Nature Preschool.

PestoGallery_RD_10-6-15 013What happens at the start of each year defines the community of teachers and children as they embark on a journey to interact in the outdoor world. Each class is named for a native tree: Sycamores, Sweet Gums, Sassafras. As the children and teachers ventured out onto the trails, they began to notice the seeds covering the forest floor. Seeds are an engaging learning tool for young children as an open ended “loose part” that can be manipulated, peeled, squeezed, and more. Continue reading

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The Start of the Year at Nature Preschool: Discovery Walls

By Shannon Wise, Nature Preschool Manager

The Discovery Wall

Children Need NatureAs you scan the walls in each Nature Preschool classroom, you will find our Discovery Wall. It is a space filled with photographs of animals, plants, or natural objects along with categorization labels. This blend of play, experience, and science tells a story much deeper than what you encounter at first sight.

Blog_SD_9.22 (1)Being outdoors and exploring in nature is the heart and soul of our Nature Preschool. Each and every day the children travel the trails, open to the possibilities of the environment. It could be a multi-colored leaf, a wiggly worm, or a tenacious toad reacting to the touch of a child as he wiggles and squirms in a tight grasp. Through these experiences, the children are making connections with a special place that is beyond their developmentally appropriate egocentric view. This widens their focus and opens up their eyes to the larger world around them often building feelings of love, compassion, kindness, and respect. All of these emotions are vital to early childhood development and learning, and natural experiences provide a teaching opportunity to help children connect with these abstract concepts of interrelationships. The Discovery Wall is a visual tool that promotes this social and cognitive growth which aligns with what we know about early childhood development and the values of outdoor play here at the Schuylkill Center. Continue reading

The Pope and Climate Change

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

Mike_9-4-15 (11)Before Pope Francis arrives in Philadelphia on Saturday, he will present groundbreaking speeches, one to a joint session of Congress on Thursday, the other to the United Nations on Friday.  He’s likely covering a number of hot-button topics, including immigration, poverty, homelessness…

…And climate change.  The pope, blessedly fearless, walks where angels fear to tread.  His June encyclical, Laudato Si’, or “Praise be to you,” rocked the world in its condemnation of how we treat the environment, using language no pope and too few world leaders have used before.  Humanity’s “reckless” behavior and “unfettered greed” have pushed the planet to a “breaking point.”

Quoting his namesake St. Francis of Assisi in his very first sentence, the pope writes that “the Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth. In many parts of the planet, the elderly lament that once beautiful landscapes are now covered with rubbish. Doomsday predictions,” he warned, “can no longer be met with irony or disdain.” Continue reading


Fridays in the Field: A Wagner Free Institute of Science Yard Adventure

By Guest Contributor Annie Zhang

Throughout the year, the Wagner Free Institute of Science hosts groups for interactive, science focused field trips. Though the winter chill confines groups to our Victorian-era natural history museum and lecture hall during most of the school year,  summer allows us to expand our teaching landscape to our large and beautiful yard.

Our yard is a grassy, serene, tree-filled oasis that wraps around our building and is a rare sight in our mostly-concrete  North Philadelphia neighborhood. It contains many “living teaching tools.” One is a bee-friendly flower garden that allows children to view our most precious pollinators in action. After several years as partners in the Philadelphia Honey Festival, we are keenly aware of the plight of the bees and are dedicated to passing on an appreciation for bees to the next generation. The whole yard is a playground for insects such as lines of ants, who rapidly crawl all over, bringing loud exclamations of, “I have found all of the ants!” from young visitors.

Recently, we acquired a Malaise trap from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University’s Entomology Department. This odd-looking contraption aids in sampling and monitoring the insect population in our yard. One of the first reports from the trap showed that a common yard visitor is Amphion floridensis, a large, fast Moth that can hover over flowers. For this reason, people often confuse them for hummingbirds.

The trees in our garden also make a great teaching tool. Site Manager Don Azuma has tagged and labeled them with their scientific and common names. This adds excitement to our Tree ID activity, where children use a dichotomous tree guide to identify our London Plane, Weeping Cherry, and others.

And lastly, but certainly not least, we use objects in our yard for an art activity: specimen cyanotypes. Visitors lay objects on photo paper. When it is exposed to sun, the UV light interacts with the iron content of the pre-treated paper and results in a lovely Prussian blue color outlining the object and a wonderful take-home souvenir.

More about the author and the Wagner Free Institute:
Annie Zhang is the Museum Educator at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, a role that involves learning and regurgitating many a fun science fact to excited younger visitors. A suburban Philadelphia native, she has been back in the city for nearly a year after a few spent on the other side of the state in Pittsburgh.

If you visit: The Wagner Free Institute of Science is a Victorian-era natural history museum and has been a provider of free science education since 1855. Summer groups spend a brief moment in our historic lecture hall with touchable specimens and then move on to a scavenger hunt in our gallery. Finally, we venture out for backyard exploration. Depending on the theme of the day, lessons in the yard focus on searches for mammals, birds, insects, or even fungi. On Friday afternoons, we forego formal lessons for “Fridays in the Field”, open activities in our yard partially funded by Whole Foods Market and the Philadelphia Beekeepers’ Guild.  Group reservations are required for most summer programs, and our busiest months are July and August. Fridays in the Field, however, are open to individual families and smaller groups. Visit for more!