About the Author

Mary Hardcastle is Environmental Education Manager at the Parks and People Foundation in Baltimore. She is also a guiding member of the Greater Baltimore Children & Nature Collaborative and serves on the nature playspace and community health workgroups of the MD Partnership for Children in Nature. Her science and arts background led her to write and direct independent films that focus on family and nature. Mary spent her childhood playing in a city park.

This is a story about how city kids will save the planet.

I am sitting in a circle under a large oak tree in Baltimore City’s Patterson Park with fifteen 1st graders. We pass nature objects around the circle and they use their five senses to explore each object. Then Jamal spots something moving in the bare spot of ground near his hand. Everyone stops and crawls over to surround him. “It’s a worm!” Allison cries as if she’d spotted an exotic creature.

Everyone wants to touch so I gently pick up the wriggling earthworm and hold it safely in my hand.

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“Let’s look,” I offer, and quickly pull small plastic magnifiers from my cargo pants pocket. Sitting back in a circle, children eagerly accept the lenses and use them to discover close details of the worm as I move from one child to the next.

They use the magnifiers exactly as I showed them in a 2 second demo (“Hold it up to your eye and lower your head to the object”). Soon afterwards, they ask me to release the earthworm back into the soil; its home, its “habitat.” We all stand up and begin our walk back to school observing squirrels running up and down trees, breathing crisp autumn air, and feeling the afternoon sun on our shoulders.

When we invite young children to observe and use all of their senses to explore the natural world, we invite an experience that touches a place deep inside them.

Renowned entomologist E.O. Wilson coined it “biophilia,” which basically means that we are hard-wired in our DNA to connect with nature. Our job as adults is to facilitate that connection for every child, to open the way for possibilities to follow–awareness, active play, education, and responsible, caring behavior. We can make these experiences age appropriate, thoughtful, place-based, and relevant. And if as adults we’ve become disconnected from nature, this is our chance to become part of the story, too.

What a gift! Providing children with the opportunity to move their bodies, exercise their minds, open their hearts, and breathe fresh air. Empower kids to grow their own food or create a garden habitat for wildlife and SEE WHAT HAPPENS! I have. Children give back. They give to each other. They smile.

When children look and really observe nature, they are expressing gratitude. They are honoring what exists. They are present in the moment, experiencing an authentic connection. We don’t have to “teach” kids to take care of the environment. If you appreciate something, you want to take care of it.

This story may seem simple but it’s also intricate — like a web, like the web of life. If children begin to think of themselves as part of this web, they will become the guardians of life, all life. As Eco-architect Bill McDonough proposes, “loving all of the children of all of the species for all time.” That’s the challenge.

If we give kids the chance to connect with nature, they will thrive in that relationship.They will seek the “green” jobs and create new ones. They will restore urban green spaces. They will invent new stories about a hopeful future. That’s a story I want to hear.


More from C&NN

Are You a Natural Teacher?

“A Living Room in the Woods: Six Great Ways Parks Connect Kids to Nature”

“How Prospect Park Shaped a Man”

 “Every Child Needs Nature: 12 Questions About Equity & Capacity”

“True Green: 21 Ways to Plant a City”







  1. great work, Mary!

  2. They will “seek the green jobs and create new ones” Love that line and believe it! Thank you for the hopeful glimpse into your day and visionary work!

  3. Dear Mary, I write this to convey my heartfelt appreciation for the work you do with such sensitivity and spirit. We are a group concerned about the rainforest and marine ecosystems in Kerala and involved in nature orientation programs for children, youngsters and conservation groups. You are right children don’t have to be taught to appreciate or protect nature and wilderness; we only have to introduce them to the beauty and preciousness of Nature and they understand totally and in their own ways and means start the changes needed to reconnect our minds and lives to the wild and free, beautiful and fast vanishing wilderness, which is deep within all of us and all around us.
    love and peace, santhi (

  4. Great work, Mary. Keep it up, you are making a difference, creating memories, and showing kids how to have fun outside. Nice article.

  5. Wonderful article, Mary! It’s simple and yet so important to talk about the senses. Jean Ayers (sensory integration) developed a picture, the learning pyramid, of the importance of the senses as a foundation for learning. The pyramid is at (scroll down) – very useful in discussions with teachers and parents.

  6. So true but in my case it my grand daughter taking me back to being interested in nature.

  7. “Biophilia?”. I’d agree with that. Children are naturally inquisitive. It is modern life and adults who are disconnected from nature that interrupt the process.

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I completely agree with what you say – “if we give kids a chance to connect with nature, they will thrive in that relationship.”


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