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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!



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.


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,, 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