Education Outside Corps member with students.
When walking through the city, people often ask me “how do you see that?” when I point to a hermit thrush flitting through the tree canopy or tiny swallowtail caterpillars masquerading as bird droppings on the anise plants growing wild in the city. Though I don’t, what I want to respond is … “how do you not see that?”
It is, after all, right there in front of us. We are all individually attuned to things around us—design, architecture, technology, cars. I consider myself fortunate that my channel is tuned to nature. It’s been this way since I was a child.
What interested me in the first place? I suppose, like most kids, I loved animals. And animals live in nature. And my closest and most reliable nature was my garden. I was fortunate to have a backyard with an ornamental plum tree that my siblings and I climbed every spring to harvest the hard sour plums, competing for the fruit with flocks of robins. I was also fortunate to have experienced a more or less free-range childhood in San Francisco. It was the 1960s, a time when kids were free from “the schedule” and largely expected to entertain themselves.
Around the age of ten, I “graduated” from my garden to Golden Gate Park, in which I roamed on my be-tassled, banana seat Schwinn stingray. I visited the Aquarium to regularly check if the skate eggs had hatched, and purloined walnuts from our cellar to feed the squirrels in the Japanese Tea Garden, feeling the thrill of their strange little feet as they climbed on my hand for their reward. I learned to be independent, stay out of trouble (well, mostly) and navigate and know the thrill of urban nature.
Today, children growing up in cities like San Francisco need these nature experiences like never before. Even in our cities, the wonders of nature are all around us. The question is: at a time in history when we are bombarded with technology, media, urban noise and congestion, how can we help children tune into “The Nature Channel?”
One important piece of the puzzle is our public schools. What if every child in San Francisco and other cities throughout the country received his or her daily dose of nature or “Vitamin N” as a regular part of the school day? What if we integrated nature and garden-based education into the fabric of formal academics—not an extracurricular activity, but fundamental to how we teach important subjects such as science?
Five years ago, I decided to help answer these questions by co-founding Education Outside. This year, Education Outside has trained and placed dynamic full-time outdoor science educators in nearly 50 public schools, where they are helping elementary students tune into the fascinating natural world as part of their instructional day.
By teaching standards-based science in school gardens, these instructors are ensuring that 17,500 public school students receive their daily dose of “Vitamin N.”
Children growing up in the city are now gaining a strong sense of place and connection with the natural world as they learn about the water cycle, native plants and animals, insect metamorphosis, and the outrageous journey that plants make from seed germination, to rooted plant, to bud, to flower, to pollination—and back to seed again. Experimenting, eating, and dreaming are par for the course in the garden classroom. Students have exclaimed that “garden time” is even better than television. Music to my ears.
With joy and curiosity, the city’s public school children are now seeing and getting to know and understand the living world around them. When I walk through San Francisco’s bustling public school gardens, it takes me back to my childhood and gives me hope for the future.
Welcome to the new school day.
More reading and resources
10 WAYS TO MAKE YOUR CITY OR STATE THE BEST IN THE U.S. (OR THE WORLD) FOR CHILDREN AND NATURE
A CHALLENGE: Make Your Local School the Best in Your State (or Nation)
BACK TO SCHOOL, FORWARD TO NATURE: Ten Ways Teachers Can Fortify Students With Vitamin N
The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need
Thriving Through Nature: Fostering Children’s Executive Function Skills, a new publication from C&NN, 2015
You Can Get Your Students Outside — and Still Meet Your State Standards
You Can’t Bounce Off the Walls If There Are No Walls: Outdoor Schools Make Kids Happier — and Smarter, by David Sobel
Natural Teachers Network
Ohio Leave No Child Inside Collaboratives
A Nature-Based School Gets Results in Georgia
Nature Pedagogy International Association
Photo credit: Education Outside