Can libraries connect children to nature? You bet. Adults, too. “Today, via a library’s outdoor learning space, librarians are participating in the growing movement to connect children with the environment,” write Tracy Delgado-LaStella and Sandra Feinberg in American Libraries magazine.
The excellent piece describes the efforts of Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, New York, which has created The Nature Explorium.
In collaboration with the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and Long Island Nature Collaborative for Kids (LINCK), the library converted an adjacent 5000-square foot area into a outdoor learning environment, “including a climbing/crawling area, messy materials area, building area, nature art area, music and performance area, planting area, gathering/conversation place, reading area, and water feature.”
The program encourages a balance of programmed and informal activities, and The Nature Exploratorium is watched by library staff (pages or clerks) and every child is required to have a caregiver on the grounds. From the beginning, the idea “struck a chord with many supporters,” including some new donors.
Indeed, libraries are a perfect place to gently and safely help families connect to nature. Libraries exist in every kind of neighborhood; they already serves as community hubs; they’re often supported by Friends groups; they have existing resources (nature books); they’re often more flexible than schools; and they’re known for being safe.]
Perhaps we need a national library campaign to connect people to the nature of their communities. One benefit of the approach: libraries could expand the public constituency for libraries, as they offer information about the health and learning benefits of nature time.
Recently, Booklist, the American Library Association’s book review journal, asked me for suggestions for how libraries and Friends of the Library groups could apply what I call “the Nature Principle, a book that I hope will help build the children and nature movement, by expanding it to the lives of adults. I shared some ideas with Booklist, specific to libraries. Here are some of those, and a few more:
- Libraries can become proponents of family nature clubs, providing free tool kits (the Children & Nature Network offers this online, in English and Spanish) and encouraging the clubs to meet at the library.
- They can offer families information about online resources for outdoor activities, such as Nature Rocks. Another good resource is C&NN’s feature, Where Nature Meets Story.
- Libraries can offer outdoor gear for checkout by children. Some libraries are already doing this. Brother Yusuf Burgess, a past member of the C&NN board, reports that libraries in his community are offering fishing rods for checkout.
- Libraries can build bioregional identity by expanding regional natural history sections, offering lectures by local nature experts, and providing a meeting place for people who want to explore and discuss the nature of their own region.
- They can become information hubs of outdoor activities, offering area maps, pamphlets on local nature, brochures for hiking clubs, and registries for community gardens.
- They can develop new partners, such as parks departments, to plant the seeds of literacy.
- They can also encourage backyard biodiversity by partnering with natural history museums and botanical gardens. For example, libraries could hand out free packets of seeds to families who want to help bring back butterfly and bird migration routes.
- Libraries can convene groups of architects, urban designers, educators, physicians and other professionals to plan the re-naturing of the surrounding community.
- And, libraries across the country can create outdoor reading and learning centers, as Middle Country Public Library is doing.
In libraries like these, as that library’s web page puts it, “children will discover the gift of nature.” And so will adults.
More C&NN information on children, nature and literacy: