Children Need Nature: Jardín de Español


By Eduardo Dueñas, Environmental Educator

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


In the course of my week, I have the opportunity to give a Spanish class to the kindergarten class at the Schuylkill Center. I honestly can’t hide my happiness when I enter the classroom and see children eager to practice and learn new words in Spanish—words that they use every time when they pass by me in the hall. I am amazed at the speed and retention that a child of four or five years has when learning a new language. Ideally, I believe kids should start learning a second language from an early age—they can carry the interest and skills with them for the rest of their lives! Continue reading


Four Black-led Initiatives Nourishing a Greener Philadelphia

Happy Black History Month! This February, we’ve been honoring Black leaders in the environmental movement.

Here are four of the many Philadelphia-based environmental initiatives led by Black educators, healers, scientists and activists you can support not just this month, but all year round.

Continue reading

Children Need Nature: Rainy Day Hike

CNN rainy day hike

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

Activity: Rainy Day Hike

You will need:

Rain gear

  • Raincoat
  • Umbrella
  • Hat
  • Rain boots

FunInTheRain_KE_2.16 (5)What to do:

  1. On a rainy day (either during or after the rain stops), go outside and take a walk around your neighborhood. Follow the path of rainwater from your roof, your doorstep, or the sidewalk in front of your house. Where does it lead?
  2. Is the water carrying anything with it? Where do you think these objects end up?
  3. Notice areas where the water puddles. Why do puddles form in some places but not others? RainYard_KE_9.9 (3)Optional step: See how big of a splash you can make!
  4. If you follow the water to the end of your street, you might see it flow into a storm drain. Where do you think the water goes after that?

Continue reading

Roxborough’s Toad Rage

By Claire Morgan, Volunteer Coordinator & Administrative Assistant

closeup toadIt’s early spring, just around sunset, and the conditions are just right—55 degrees and humid. A high-pitched trilling rings out in the distance. The shallow water of the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve stirs with excitement. The toads of Roxborough are ready to run—and ready to attract a mate.

On some evenings, as many as two hundred toads can be seen heading from the Schuylkill Center’s forest to the Upper Roxborough Reservoir Preserve in a period of just two hours. The steady stream of traffic at the intersection of Hagy’s Mill Road and Port Royal Avenue (that separates the forest from the preserve) presents a huge obstacle to the toads as they cross the road in preparation for their springtime mating ritual. Continue reading

ACE Campaign layout 9

At the Schuylkill Center, #NatureWelcomes everyone

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director 

Across the country, debate is raging on a wide number of increasingly political issues: health care reform, immigration, foreign policy, nuclear deterrence, the role of social media in politics, energy policy, public lands, climate change, and endlessly on and on.  The stakes in these arguments only rise by the minute and by the tweet.

While these issues heat up, California is on fire, Houston (remember Houston?) still recovering from a flood, Florida coming back online after its hurricane, and Puerto Rico, well, Puerto Rico is a hellish nightmare of too many people having too little access to basics like water and electricity.  Puerto Rico looks to be a public health powder keg set to explode.

One thing is clear: we need nature. Now more than ever.

All of us need nature.  In these overstressed times, nature heals.  Literally.  Every day, new studies show that time spent in a forest walking, or even just even sitting, elevates our mood, calms our heart rate and breathing, and relaxes us.  Simply seeing green is restorative, but even better, trees release chemicals into the air that our brain is hardwired to respond to: a
Japanese researcher sprayed pine aerosols into a hospital nursery, and the blood pressure of newborn infants lowered immediately.  They’ve never even been in a forest before, and their bodies responded to pine scent.

Nature heals.

What is equally clear is that not all people have access to greenspaces like the Schuylkill Center.  Studies also show that parks are a public–health benefit to the neighborhoods near them—an entire neighborhood is healthier when a park is close by. No park nearby, and the community suffers. Continue reading


Naturaleza por dentro

Por: Eduardo Dueñas, Lead Environmental Educator | For an English version of this blog post, see here.

Siempre me encantaron los olores, colores y sabores de los dias. Yo era un nino inquieto que le gustaba levantar piedras en el patio de mi casa para ver que sorpresa me esperaba. Ese mismo nino que corria afuera cada vez que llovia para poder oler la tierra mojada.

Un nino que durante los partido de futbol le gustaba chupar pedazos de cesped y tirar piedras al rio.

Desde muy temprana edad me interesaron las plantas y los animales, gustos que me llevaron a explorar muchos lugares y conocer personas increibles.

Despues de estudiar sobre los procesos de la vida, no me quedaron dudas que la naturaleza hay que respetarla y llevarla por dentro.

Es imperativo para el bienestar de todos que los jovenes crezcan sin barreras fisicas o mentales sobre la naturaleza. Asi se convertiran en sus protectores para siempre.

Durante el transcurso de mi maestria pude estudiar a fondo las repercusiones de las acciones humanas sobre la naturaleza, dejando en claro que nuestro estilo de vida no solo destruye nuestra salud sino tambien todo lo importante que nos rodea.

Es por eso que en mi tesis final plasme la necesidad de replantear la forma de como aprendemos y de como percibimos nuetro entorno.

La educacion por ende sera la unica esperanza para cambiar el mundo y poder dejar un verdadero legado para las generaciones futuras.

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education es una organizacion pionera con mas de 50 años de experiencia en la porteccion y conservacion ambiental.

Me siento feliz de trabajar en un lugar como The Schuylkill Center donde se comparten y desarrollan muchas ideas sobre la comprencion y proteccion de nuestro medio ambiente. Los programas incluyen jovenes y adultos de diferentes edades, procedencias, razgos etnicos y niveles educativos.

Mi oficina es en el bosque con los ninos donde ellos juegan y exploran libremente. Durante algunas caminatas dibujamos, recolectamos plantas, hojas, semillas, raicez y hacemos te de algunas de ellas, otras veces arte o  escribimos  observaciones en su hojas de trabajo. Me gusta sentir que soy bienvenido en este lugar y ver en mis estudiantes el curioso niño que solia ser.

Eduardo DuenasEduardo Duenas es un Educador Ambiental que trabaja para la organizacion ambiental,The Schuylkill Center. Primero se involucró con el Centro como voluntario antes de trabajar a tiempo completo en programas educativos como; lecciones para grupos guiados en el SCEE, al igual que programas después de la escuela y programas comunitarios. Eduardo Tiene una formación en estudios ambientales, con un máster en Gestión Ambiental y Desarrollo Sostenible. También tiene experiencia como maestro de aula y le encanta trabajar con niños de todas las edades.


Nature from Within | Naturaleza por dentro

By Eduardo Dueñas, Lead Environmental Educator | Para una versión en Español de este post, por favor ver aquí. 

For as long as I can remember, I have always loved the scents, colors, and surprises of each day.  I was a curious child who always liked to pick up rocks in the yard of my house to see what surprise awaited me underneath- a colorful beetle, a squirmy worm, or a family of ants. That same curiosity drove me to run outside everytime it rained to feel the rain and smell wet earth.  I was the curious kid who would suck on blades of grass and throw stones into the river during a soccer game.  From a young age, I was interested in plants and animals- passions which led me to explore many new places and meet incredible people working for positive change, ecological awareness, and conservation of our fragile planet.

After studying biology, I was left with no doubt that we must respect nature and carry nature within us.

It is critical for the wellbeing of everyone that children are able to grow up without physical or mental barriers removing them from nature. For some children and communities, it can be difficult to access natural areas or to find ways to connect with nature on a daily basis.  When we help children to spend time in nature and understand the environment around them, they can become protectors and champions of our natural world.

In earning my master’s degree, I had the chance to study in depth the repercussions of human impact on nature – from unsustainable urban development to monoculture farming.  It became clear to me that many modern lifestyles impact our own health and the health of the natural world around us.  Because of this, I chose to focus my Master’s thesis on the need to readjust the way we learn about and perceive our surroundings- the natural world.  I believe that education is our strongest hope to change the world and leave a positive legacy for future generations. As Baba Dioum said “”In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

I feel lucky and inspired to work at a place like the Schuylkill Center, where every day we share and develop ideas about understanding and protecting our natural world. I love that our programs include children and adults of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities – like our after school programs with urban schools in Philadelphia, our outreach programs with Latino communities, and our family-friendly education and volunteer programs -like toad detour- for all ages.

Today, my office is the forest, where I work with children to guide them as they play and explore freely.  During hikes, we draw, collect plants, seeds, or roots to make teas, sometimes we make art, or make notes about what we see in workbooks.  It is fulfilling to me to be able to support a love of nature in my students, I see in them the curious kid I used to be.

Eduardo DuenasEduardo Duenas is an Environmental Educator at the Schuylkill Center. He first became involved with the Center as a volunteer before working full time with guided educational groups at the Schuylkill Center, after-school programs, and community outreach programs. He has a background in environmental studies, with a Master’s degree in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development.  He also has experience as a classroom teacher and loves working with children of all ages.


Red-tailed Hawks at the Franklin Institute: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway as Wildlife Habitat

By guest contributor Christian Hunold, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Drexel University

In the spring of 2012 I stumbled across a community of amateur naturalists who were drawn to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway not by the museums or the cultural events, but by a pair of red-tailed hawks nesting on a second-story window ledge of the Franklin Institute. Grid Magazine had requested some pictures of the hawks, and so I spent one sunny afternoon in late May photographing the half-grown chicks huddled on the nest at the corner of 21st and Winter Street.

I recall feeling a little bored: where was the fun in shooting urban hawks? How could birds habituated to humans, like the city’s ubiquitous pigeons and geese, be at all interesting? And the noise and stink of the unrelenting traffic assaulting my senses from all sides made me think that Center City was the last place on Earth anyone should be asked to photograph wildlife. The only bright spot was the beautiful early evening light I had to work with: at least my images of the chicks weren’t going to be the worst anyone had ever taken, even if the awkward half downy/half feathered look they were sporting at this age did not scream “charismatic megafauna.”

fledglingsAnother year would pass before my previously separate lives as a wildlife photographer and as a scholar of environmental politics merged around the topic of urban wildlife. May had come around again, and I decided to visit the nest one afternoon. The hawks were once more raising three chicks. This time, I caught a glimpse of one of the adults trailing the Institute’s roofline along 21st Street before it was briefly obscured by the building. Moments later it cleared the roof and, set off against the golden glow of the late afternoon sandstone façade, delivered the bloody remains of a squirrel to the nest. While the other parent fed chunks of meat to the three hungry chicks, the successful hunter flew to a nearby plane tree, where it cleaned its beak and talons.

Now this was not boring! On subsequent outings I got to know the hawks as well as some of the people who watched them. I knew the Franklin Institute’s online “nest cam” had attracted a popular following around the world. But I did not at first appreciate the extent to which the hawks’ travels through the city were being monitored on the ground. The hawk watchers – middle-aged, more women than men – were not so much bird watchers as dyed-in-the-wool hawk fans, intimately familiar with the birds’ daily habits and life histories. I learned they had named the female bird “Mom” and the male “T2,” short for “Tiercel 2” (he was the female’s second mate since the hawks had nested at the Franklin Institute.) When the chicks fledged in June I was there with my camera to document their early forays to nearby trees, buildings, and monuments. I’d gotten hooked.T2_Hunold Continue reading

Naturalist’s Notebook: The Missing Sponge

By Andrew Kirkpatrick, Manager of Land Stewardship

If you take a walk along Smith Run, coming up Ravine Loop below Penn’s Native Acres, the hillsides where the beeches, oaks and maples grow show signs of distress.  The structural roots of the trees are visible at the soil line when they should be tucked away cozily wrapped in the warm blanket of leaf litter and organic rich soil.  Instead, because of exotic invasive earthworms, which can be observed by scraping away the thin layer of leaves on the ground, the roots are exposed and left to fend for themselves in all of the elements; freezing winter winds, driving rains, and blazing sun.  If you look up, the impact on the trees is apparent.  Bare branches and diminished canopy reveal their stresses.  The trees are dying.  

In healthy, undisturbed forest soil, we would discover a universe of fungus, microorganisms, bacteria, and insects thriving. All of these elements facilitate the healthy growth and development of plant roots. The vast root mat matrix of the organic horizon (the top layer of healthy soil) in the forest acts like a gigantic sponge that collects water when it rains and holds it in storage for trees to use in the drier months of the year.  

However, in highly disturbed areas like the Schuylkill Center, the organic horizon of the soil is absent. Soil horizon is a technical term for the classification of the cake-like layers of soil.  The organic horizon is missing here because hundreds of years of agricultural use have long since removed the original rich soil and left mostly thin, mineral soil at the top of the profile.  In fact, parts of our property were in farmland almost until the Center’s founding in 1965. The forest has not been able to redevelop the O horizon as it might have otherwise, largely due to the activity of invasive earthworms.

photo by Julia Aguilar

photo by Julia Aguilar

Invasive earthworm and castings

Invasive earthworm and castings

The invasive earthworms are much larger than our native ones, tunnel deeper into the earth and voraciously devour the leaf litter that would accumulate annually in the fall, break down over time to replenish the soil, and rebuild the O horizon.  So what is left is a loose accumulation of worm castings on a destabilized base that washes away into our streams every time it rains, carrying many nutrients with them.  And when the dry times of the year arrive, the trees have no reserve of nutrients to draw upon.  Instead our forest is stressed and vulnerable to attack from pests and diseases that it would otherwise be able to fend off.  

Planting Fox Glen_5-20-17 (10)20170516_115508We can address these problems by improving the soil and providing the roots of trees with a healthy environment to grow and develop.  In our Fox Glen restoration site, as we planted new trees we covered the ground around them with wood chips to help the roots retain moisture.  The wood chips will break down over time and add to the organic content of the soil.  

If we want our forest at the Schuylkill Center to survive climate change and the increasing stresses that come from an urban environment, we must help it to be as resilient as possible by replacing the missing sponge.

About the author

photo by Heather FowlerAndrew has a master’s degree in landscape architecture and ecological restoration from Temple University.  He hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine in 2005-2006.

Photo by Heather Fowler, WHYY

An excerpt from this piece was published in our summer newsletter in June 2017.

Citizen Science: at the Schuylkill Center and Beyond

By Guest contributor Anna Forrester

Seven years ago, my partner and I became the enthusiastic owners of an abandoned farm in central Pennsylvania. The property included an early 20th century bank barn, complete with a resident colony of bats. Reports of white nose syndrome and its devastating effects on the area’s bat populations had recently begun appearing in the media and – though we hadn’t had any up-close, intimate experience with our bats — we soon found ourselves working to help track the spread of the disease and the fate of our bats by participating in the Appalachian Bat Count (ABC).

Barn 1

Our barn is a maternity colony, meaning a group of female bats congregate there during the warm months to birth, wean, and raise their pups. Doing counts involves regularly laying on our backs next to a campfire at dusk counting as the bats emerge from the cracks and crevices of the barn’s siding.

Each year we follow the ABC researchers’ bat counting protocols, doing both pre-volant counts (before pups begin flying) and post-volant counts (after they’ve begun to fly out alongside their mothers). We fill out forms as we go and, at the end of the season, send our data off.

Laying there next to the fire with my husband, daughters and various other friends is soothing and peaceful – it’s a great way to end a day. We are watchful and present, full of anticipation and hope. I emphasize the word hope, here, because hope is the balloon I find myself gripping ever more tightly as my worries about the impacts on our planet of unbridled human activity and of climate change keep growing – and as our current administration turns a blind eye.

Big Brown Bat with Fishing Tackle


When we started the counts, I had never heard of “citizen science,” a term which has been showing up more and more lately. It has been redefined and massaged repeatedly in recent years — the 2014 Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘citizen science’ as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.” I quickly realized that our counts qualified.

Citizen science is distinct from nature study, science-related advocacy, and environmental activism, in that it focuses on generating or gathering data. But it overlaps with and is integrally connected to all these other endeavors too.  Henry David Thoreau noted the bloom times of plants around Walden Pond in the 1850 in his journal – creating what today is often cited as an example of early (if unintentional) citizen science — as have similar notes taken by members of the Smiley family at the Mohonk Preserve in the Catskills. The information gathered in the name of ‘nature study’, then, have proven to be invaluable ‘data’, today, for scientists studying climate change.

There are all sorts of ways to get involved in citizen science on the grounds of the Schuylkill Center: the Toad Detour (through the end of the month), the winter and spring bird census and the annual butterfly count (July 6 this year) all offer great hands-on ways to engage in citizen science, as do the Senior Environmental Corps’ water quality testing program and various of the art installations and art programs on site.

In January, LandLab artist Leslie Birch wrote about related arts-oriented practices and organizations that she connected with through work she did at the Center: PublicLab and The Center for Artistic Activism .

And the SciStarter website, brainchild of Philadelphian and science cheerleader Darlene Cavalier, offers hundreds of projects that let lay people help practicing scientists do their work. A sort of clearinghouse for projects that are looking for help, SciStarter has something for every age, interest area, location and activity level (there is plenty of citizen science you can even do without ever leaving your home).

Technology – thanks to the internet’s hyper-connectivity and to the advent of less expensive  equipment — has exponentially increased the possibilities and potential for us to do citizen science. Data can be transferred quickly and easily from anyplace — and anyone — with a cell phone and cellular reception; the same data is easily tagged with locational information through GIS systems; and digital photographic images cost little to produce and are more easily shared then print photography. And the astronomical amount of data generated, once received, can be managed and analyzed with complex and fast computer programs.

A four part series, The Crowd and the Cloud recently aired on PBS, offering a great introduction to the field and to technology’s role in it. (You can stream all four episodes; the second one is especially topical, focusing as it does on Philadelphia’s drinking water.)

CROWD & CLOUD screenshot

If you’re interested in bats, please: track down a bat roost and start a count. Wildlife Biologist Nate Zalik, who coordinates the Appalachian Bat Count, tells me that they have data from every county in Pennsylvania except Philadelphia County. I know for a fact that we have bats here – so let’s take this as a challenge! For information on how to find a location and when to count, go here.

For me, and for many practitioners of citizen science, getting involved to help scientists understand problems and come up with solutions is very much an act of hope and of imagining better possibilities and futures. We Schuylkill Center supporters, frequenters and volunteers all love the natural world. By taking action – finding small (and large) ways to help scientists find solutions to the myriad, complex problems we are facing – we actively hold onto and nurture hope — which, I think, is one of the most important thing we can do right now.

headshot straightAbout the Author
Anna Forrester sits on the Schuylkill Center’s Art Advisory Committee. She is trained as a landscape architect, and also writes children’s books. Her picture book, BAT COUNT  (Arbordale, 2017), is a story about bats, white nose syndrome, citizen science and hope. It is available in the Schuylkill Center Gift Shop, on Amazon or through your local independent bookseller.