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.

4 thoughts on “Making nature relevant: finding common ground

  1. Cool! I am the “choir” but still struggle to get my now teenagers off the screens and into the woods; that’s a different program. Love your mission.

  2. Thank you,Gail, for your article. As a public educator in a rural/suburban school I too understand that “sense of nature relevant choir” versus “the diverse choir”. We are able to offer a week-long camp to 6th graders during the school year. Most 6th graders attend;however, every year I encounter parents who will not let their 6th grader go to camp. It is not an economic issue because we will help those who have difficulty affording the $45.00 cost. This is a true nature disconnect that parents harbor because many of their children want to attend but the parents won’t allow it.
    The good news is that the 6th graders that do go to camp are ambassadors for nature and the outdoors. They have spent 5 days and 4 nights without a screen in front of their faces. Interaction is with others on a hike, in a cabin, or at a table. Still it is those students who don’t go and their not having the experience to connect that is frustrating and sad.
    Your article inspires me to try harder with those reluctant parents. I plan to try and meet them where they are. Health, wellness, and safety and perhaps in our case a way for their child to build their self confidence using nature and their peers as the context for learning.
    Happy 50 years of people and nature! Thank you and keep up the great programs at the Schuylkill Center!

    • Hi Cindy, I am so glad to learn of your work connecting 6th graders with nature! Good luck with those reluctant parents – if you can figure out what is at the root of their reluctance, you just might be able to address it! – Gail

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