Connecting Children With Nature: What Zoo’s Can Do
Facilitator: Laura Seger, Education Specialist, Saint Louis Zoo
What is conservation/environmental education?
All AZA institutions are committed to providing meaningful and effective conservation education programming. NAAEE (North American Association for Environmental Education) provides guidelines for excellence in environmental education. According to NAAEE effective programs should:
- Foster awareness of environmental concepts and understanding of issues
- Build lifelong skills that enable learners to prevent and address environmental issues
- Promote civic responsibility and encourage learners to use their knowledge and skills
David Sobel, considered by many to be the godfather of modern environmental education, reminds us that if we want to empower children to take environmental action we must “allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it.”
Environmental education must be looked at as a continuum, beginning with awareness and ending in action, with an often long and winding path in between. However it’s worth the work, as the rewards are great. By fostering environmental literacy in this way, all earth’s creatures benefit from a safe and healthy environment and a better quality of life.
Where to begin?
Studies have shown that reaching children at an early age is beneficial, so there is a push for more and more early childhood programming. However not just any programming will do. A 1998 Cornell study found that environmentally active adults had all spent time doing “wild nature activities” as children, such as hiking, camping, playing in the woods and even fishing. There was a stronger correlation between these activities and adult activism than to other activities like gardening, or participating in nature related activities that were mandatory. In fact environmental education programs were shown to have no effect on adult attitudes toward the environment at all.
So, should we stop providing these programs? Of course not, however we should reevaluate what types we offer and why. Programs designed for the awareness end of environmental education continuum, regardless of the age of the audience, should:
- Encourage a sense of wonder in the natural world
- Provide concrete hands-on opportunities for exploration
- Include local nature experiences and opportunities, or at least make connections to them
What are the challenges?
If wild nature activities are the catalyst for creating the environmentally responsible citizens of the future, we simply need to help promote them. However, increasingly American children are spending less time outdoors. In addition, when they are outdoors they are generally participating in structured activities. They are also less and less likely to be given time to explore the outdoors. In some cases there are simply no suitable places near by, but more often they are not allowed to venture into those that are available.
A media culture that promotes fear and a lack of experience in nature are also contributing factors. Parents are leery of allowing their children out of sight, let alone into the woods unsupervised. In addition they are inundated with the warnings of salmonella, west Nile and Lyme disease, making many even less likely to encourage outdoor exploration. Of course no one thinks twice about hopping into the car to go to the store, statistically a far more dangerous activity. Parents who themselves have no experience outdoors may not know how to go about introducing their children to nature. Other parents are so focused on their children getting ahead that they have them so over scheduled there is little to no time for free play, outside or otherwise.
What can we do?
Zoos and aquariums have many opportunities to help correct this ever growing problem.
- Providing on-site nature play opportunities
- Providing off-site programming in nature that allows for individual exploration
- Programming and interactions that focus on local wildlife
- Addressing how to attract and protect local wildlife
- Focusing on the overall habitat, not just the animal in isolation
- Sharing/modeling the facilitation of appropriate outdoor experiences for parents
What the Saint Louis Zoo is doing
Many of these opportunities have been offered for years, others are new, but all are constantly being reevaluated
to incorporate the latest research and to best support our community.
ZOOmagination Station- The Zoo’s new pilot discovery room experience is designed to provide opportunities for young children and their caregivers to explore the natural world together. Staff is trained to scaffold the learning of the visitors to allow them to construct their own knowledge. The backyard habitat area also provides many opportunities to encourage the extension of the nature play once family’s leave. A playhouse and yard complete with trees and plants are home to a wide assortment of native wildlife (plush and plastic replicas). Children are encouraged to explore using field guides, binoculars, bug catchers, magnifiers and more.
As they explore they may collect and observe many of the animals. They can also search for animal clues like nests, scat, and birdcalls, or look for the many ways in which wildlife are being attracted to the yard. A sensory table filled with birdseed allows children to fill their own feeders as well.
On-site Programs- Many of our programs have native wildlife components, for example, building bat houses, toad abodes, and planting butterfly weed. Others visit on grounds areas that are being used to attract native wildlife as well as areas in the park. Native animals are also frequently used for contacts. We are also beginning a program that will help families have their own backyards certified as Backyard Wildlife Habitats.
Off Site Programs- Programs are offered for families with young children, teens and even adults to explore places near and far. Programs model appropriate outdoor experiences, ways to share in the wonder of nature with your children and the benefits of unstructured exploration time outdoors.
Nature Play Space- Still in the planning stages this proposed area would allow for nature play and exploration in the heart of the Zoo. A circulating stream, spring and frog pond have been proposed as well as climbing rocks and bridges, fort building opportunities and more.
Chronicle Online at Cornell- March `06, Lang
The Geography of Childhood, Nabhan and Trimble
Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Louv