Restoring childhood play… and Philly’s first nature preschool

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.   My street ran along the bottom of 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.

preschool hikeUnlike more structured activities, The Hill was totally open to our interpretation and needs:  it was a place where we could try to make sense of the complex world in which we lived by reconstructing it on a much smaller scale.  The Hill had scary places (“the swamp”) and refuges (“rainbow rock”).  On The Hill we were sometimes brave explorers discovering new lands 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 in nature (not just outdoors on the basketball court or playground, but 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.  (Learn more at The challenge in our increasingly urban environment is: how do we provide very young children with the kind of immersive exposure to nature they really need?

The Schuylkill Center is keenly aware of this challenge, and already offers opportunities for nature play in many of its programs.  Now we are adding another path for children in the critical early years of development: we are opening a “nature preschool.”

The Schuylkill Center Nature Preschool will provide Philadelphia children with regular opportunities for direct contact with nature, on a daily basis and across the seasons—in a risk-managed environment.  Our classroom will open directly into our nature preserve, so students can jump into forests, streams, ponds and meadows.  They will grow and plant trees, rear tadpoles, catch butterflies, and generally just be outdoors in all seasons.

Although our preschool is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, there are more than a dozen nature preschools across the country, and we are modeling our program on the best practices of those schools.

For more on Nature Preschools, visit: Hearts founding director, Ken Finch, will be at the Schuylkill Center January 10, 2013 to present the 2nd annual Dick James Lecture: Go Outside & Play! Restoring the Nature of Childhood.  If you’re in the area, come check it out!


Wellness Walks Even In The Winter

By Gail Farmer, Director of Education

The temperature might be dropping, and the trees might be losing their leaves, but that doesn’t mean keeping up your exercise routine isn’t just as important.

Winter wellness walks have obvious benefits, but we found some more with a little research. In fact, it has been proven that winter walks may have surprising health benefits.

Benefit #1: Reduces Stress

Walking in the winter offers you a refreshing change of pace, says Alan Mikesky, PhD on, director of the human performance and biomechanics laboratory at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. The invigorating cold air can clear your mind and reduce stress, which can be helpful for weight loss.

Benefit #2: Keeps bones strong.

As Lynn Millar, PhD, a physical therapist and professor at Andrews University in Barrien Springs, Mich explains on Arthritis Today, any kind of sun exposure triggers vitamin D production in the skin, and bones need the “sunshine vitamin” to make the body absorb bone-strengthening calcium properly. Not getting outside during winter months slows down production and decreases the body’s store of vitamin D. “Vitamin D is important for keeping bones strong…because they have an increased risk of brittle bones,” says Millar. Going for a winter walk and getting 15 minutes of sun on your face and hands two to three times per week should suffice for getting enough sun for vitamin D production.

Benefit #3: Improves Mood

Sunlight and just being outdoors can do wonders for lifting your mood, says Millar. Just a simple walk in the woods with friends can not only be enjoyable, but also can have positive side effects on your mood and even decrease pain. A University of Washington in Seattle study of 112 women aged 19 to 78 shows that women who took a brisk, outdoor walk for 20 minutes daily had better mood, higher self-esteem and an improved sense of well-being at the end of the eight-week study. Winter walking could provide an effective, easy-to-stick-with therapy for mild-to-moderate depression, say the researchers, especially for those who experience side effects from prescription treatment options.

Benefit #4: Burns Calories

This one might seem a little obvious, and it is true that outdoor walking through the park or around the neighborhood on a cold day won’t burn any more calories than walking on a warm summer day, but walking in the snow will. “You expend more energy because it’s harder to move your feet in the snow, and you lift your legs a little higher,” Dr. Millar explains.

It might be cold outside, but clearly #WellnessWalks are a great idea.

On one of Schuylkill Center's Trails

Philadelphia’s Top Trails

On one of Schuylkill Center’s Trails

As Thanksgiving is fast approaching, you might be in need of an activity for your visiting family members.

Even as the weather starts to grow colder, the greater Philadelphia area offers many beautiful and relaxing nature trails. Try one of the following trails with your family, your partner, or even just for yourself this holiday season.

Looking for a more active day?

-Wissahickon’s Green Ribbon Trail (20 miles): This multi-purpose path stretches along the Wissahickon Creek from Whitemarsh Township to a point near Lansdale Borough.

-Schuylkill River Trail (27 miles): Following the beautiful Schuylkill River, this trail ranges from the Valley Forge National Historic Park to the Philadelphia Art Museum, while passing the Center in between.

-The Manayunk Towpath (28 miles): Parallel to the Canal and the Schuylkill River, this varied-surface path is a favorite for joggers and off-road cyclists.

Want something a bit more peaceful?

-Schuylkill Center’s Ravine Loop (1.0 miles): Crisscrossing a spring-fed stream, several rustic bridges, and Smith’s run, this peaceful walking trail includes a few challenging slopes and even a view into the Center’s oldest section of forest in Roxborough.

-Cobbs Creak Recreation Path (4 miles): Particularly cyclist-friendly, this path runs from Market Street to 70th Street, hugging the westernmost boundary of West Philadelphia.

A red-spotted purple

Butterfly Land

As the mercury hovers around 100, people might wilt and retreat indoors—but the butterflies are having a ball. Summer is high season for butterflies, and the hotter it is, the happier they seem.  In fact, driving down SCEE’s long driveway between the nature center and Hagy’s Mill Road, literally dozens of butterflies jump up from the dusty driveway to avoid the car, and dozens more flit across the driveway flying past.

We are Butterfly Land.  Come see.  Right now.

Just outside our front door, common milkweed is in full glorious bloom, perfect globular bursts that resemble pink fireworks.  Smelling unbelievably beautiful—Chanel No. 5 has nothing on milkweed—the flower attracts scores of butterflies: the ubiquitous cabbage whites, the big and boldly striped tiger swallowtail, the Flyers-colored monarch, and small brown skippers of innumerable species. A red admiral popped into view yesterday on the milkweed, sporting its gaudy bright red diagonal stripe. Fresh out of the chrysalis, it was a sight for a summer’s morning.

We’ve got a butterfly count coming up soon, and a butterfly evening too—we’ll sip wine while the butterflies sip nectar; nibble on cheese while the butterflies, well, sip nectar.

So while our center is 340 acres of fields and forests, all you have to do is drive down our driveway and head to our front door, and you’ll have already seen scores of butterflies.  Walk out to our butterfly meadow, and you’ll be in heaven.

Come see Butterfly Land for yourself.

The male firefly, flashing in search of a female

Sex and the Single Firefly

The male firefly, flashing in search of a female

By Mike Weilbacher, Exec Director

Saw my first firefly just last week, right after Memorial Day.  For me, a naturalist who marks the passage of time by nature’s calendar, nothing says summer like an evening of fireflies.

And one of my favorite stories is the secrets of a firefly’s flash.

When you see a cloud of fireflies rising from your lawn like liquid lightning, you are witnessing a stag party, a collection of horny males desperately seeking Susans– every firefly flashing around you is male, the flash used to seduce a female into responding.  Firefly females are generally flightless, their abdomens too weighted down with the machinery of egg production.  

Males seek them out by strafing the grasses, cruising tree branches, looking for female perching spots—flashing females in both senses of the word.  

And each firefly species has its own unique flash pattern– its own Morse code– which one species uses distinguishes itself from another.  So the firefly flashing in a J-pattern is a separate species from one flashing two dashes, though both appear identical to the untrained eye.  In some cases, even the best microscopes can’t tell discern one species from another, but they know who is who.  And who is where.  Some species flash high, others flash low: fireflies sort out species by both pattern and space.  

For every male’s flash, there is a correct answer, perhaps a two-second pause and then a quick, surreptitious dash.  The males flash questions into the night air, hoping (if insects truly hope) for an answer to appear from below. 

Then the story gets knotty.  There is a species of firefly the female of which also has decoded the correct response to another species.  When she’s interested in mating, she answers the male with the appropriate answer, and sex ensues. But when she’s hungry, she searches for the flash of the other, and gives that one’s appropriate response.  That male lands thinking he’s about to mate, and the female happily devours him, getting the protein she needs to create a batch of eggs. 

One helluva way to leave this world. 

That’s the why of firefly flashing.  Like a butterfly’s bright colors, a house wren’s bubbly song, a cricket’s scratchy chirrup, and a deer’s horny antlers, a firefly’s light is a neon sign, advertising its species, its sex, and its availability. 

The how is different:  a firefly’s abdomen is loaded with a pair of chemicals, luciferin and luciferase, held in separate sacks.  When exposed to each other, a powerful chemical reaction occurs that releases large amounts of energy as light, a light that magically generates infinitesimally small amounts of heat (unlike, say, a light bulb).  This bioluminescence is astonishingly common under the sea, where everything from single-celled dinoflagellates (a kind of plankton) to large bony fish glow in the ocean.  On land, however, bright life is exceedingly uncommon. 

In the tropics, where the forests are dense, fireflies can’t see or find each other in the growth.  There, flashing fireflies migrate to river corridors, and cover trees by the thousands– all flashing synchronously, the entire forest along a riverbank beckoning to firefly females to come closer.The flash of a firefly is a short-lived phenomenon– only a few weeks centered on the summer solstice, their bright lights marking the beginning of summer.  

One firefly-filled night soon, open a bottle of wine, lure your spouse onto the deck or the porch, witness the wonder of thousands of insects glowing all around you, whisper in his or her ear the full story of the firefly’s flash– and see what else develops that night.

Special Event: Join me for Firefly Nights, the first in our new Nature Uncorked series of events.  We’ll enjoy a wine and cheese reception in our firefly meadow while learning the natural history of these, and other, evening critters.  Nature Uncorked is $10/event (member price), $25 for the series of three.  Pre-registration required!  Register on our web site,

Tallamy Tabbed to Give the Inaugural Dick James Lecture

The Schuylkill Center’s founding director

Founding director. Outstanding teacher. Sharp wit.  Leader.  Acclaimed meteorologist. Radio and TV personality.  Give Dick his due: he was a force to be reckoned with for decades.

To honor his accomplishments and reconnect to his legacy, the Schuylkill Center happily announces the establishment of the annual Richard L. James lecture. This year’s inaugural edition will be held Thursday, March 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Cathedral Village auditorium.

Dr. Doug Tallamy, professor of entomology and author of the remarkable “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants,” provides a visually compelling slide show of his astonishing research on the critical role native plants play in sustaining ecological communities, even in urban and suburban landscapes.  After listening to Tallamy, you’ll radically change your home gardening plans.

“In looking for a speaker of Dick’s stature,” said new director Mike Weilbacher, who worked for Dick here at SCEE in the 1980s, “all of us on staff immediately thought of Doug Tallamy: a great speaker on an incredibly important topic, the preservation of local biological diversity.”

Karin James, Dick’s widow, and Andy, his son and longtime land manager, will attend the lecture, Andy offering opening remarks about his dad.

Native plants guru Doug Tallamy

Whether you’d like to reconnect to our legacy or learn some great new information, this event is for you. The Dick James lecture is free for members, only $10/seat for non-members. Cathedral Village is located on Ridge Avenue in Andorra at the intersection of East Cathedral Road.  Please park in the St. Mary’s Church parking lot alongside Cathedral Village.

And RSVP by calling the center at 215-482-7300, ext. 110, or registering online.