Archive for August, 2012

August 31, 2012

Upcoming Little Sprouts: Single Serving on September 20th!

by Melissa Harding

This September, join us for the very first of our new Little Sprouts series, Single Servings. Our first serving is called We Heart Trees.  Little Sprouts: Single Servings is a one-day version of our popular Little Sprouts series for 2- and 3- year-olds (with an adult). In We Heart Trees, campers will learn the parts of a tree, why trees are important, and follow a tree through its seasonal cycle. Join us for a morning of songs, crafts and snacks that come from trees! We will also take a tree tour of the Conservatory, looking for special trees that help both people and animals.

Please join us on September 20, 10:30 a.m. to noon for We Heart Trees.

If you would like to sign up your child for this or any other Little Sprouts program, please contact Sarah at (412)441-4442 etx. 3925.

For a complete list of all our Little Sprout offerings, please visit our website.

We hope to see you there!

The above photo is by Christie Lawry.

August 29, 2012

Should We Minimize Risk in Environmental Education?

by Melissa Harding

Much has been made recently of “risk-averse” nature play. From David Sobel’s article Look, Don’t Touch to Ken Finch’s But…Isn’t It Dangerous?, bloggers, authors and parents alike have been concerned about the state of outdoor play at both nature centers and schools. Many of these authors feel that creating risk-averse environments for children, especially during what has traditionally been messy and unstructured outdoor play, is both detrimental to the development of children and distorts their view of nature.

For Ken Finch, founder and president of The Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood, nature play is meant to be risky. Children may be injured, but that is not always a bad thing. Children may always be injured as they learn how to manage themselves in an environment with inherent risks, whether it is determining how high they should climb or whether a rock is slippery. However, children need to learn to manage risk in their lives; the inherent risk in outdoor play is no reason to keep children from engaging in the outdoors. Finch argues that without taking risks no child would ever learn to walk or ride a bike, let alone learn to manage the complexity of an adult life.

All of this seems to point to how we perceive the amount of risk inherent in a situation. Human beings are very poor at judging risk. We base our perceptions of risk more on emotion and instinct than fact and reason (Source). This is the same mindset that makes us more afraid of sharks than driving a car; a car accident is statistically much more likely than a shark attack (Source), yet many people drive all the time and are afraid of the ocean. Maybe our fear of risk, yet proven inability to correctly assess it, is part of the problem; maybe nature play isn’t as risky as we think.

For Finch,  valuable learning occurs when children are allowed to play away from adults and without structure. Nature can be a testing ground where children use their imaginations to act out conquests and challenges. This is what many adults remember from their own childhoods, yet are afraid to let their children experience. Finch argues for the use of comparative risk; the risk of letting children play in nature is far less than the risk of keeping them away from it. He fears that this current culture will create children who find nature boring and restrictive, seeing no need to care for it. His solution, allowing risk but managing clear hazards, allows children to feel unhampered by rules yet still be safe from real injury.

David Sobel has a similar argument; he feels that the joy of children exploring the world on their own terms is no longer allowed. He takes environmental education to task, citing its “look, don’t touch” mentality as a stumbling block to its true goal of reconnecting children to nature in a meaningful way. He also cites a number of programs that celebrate wild nature play and accept risk as part of the deal.

Finally, Kay Wyma of the New York Times’ Motherlode column, talks about an experience her son had climbing trees. A well-intentioned neighbor admonished her child for climbing and asked her “What if he falls?”. The answer to that question, that he would learn his boundaries, is the basis of her column. She argues that children need to learn to do for themselves, to learn boundaries, and maybe even to fail and fall a little – even, or maybe especially, outside.

Taken all together, where do these articles put us?

I’m not sure. As an educator, I feel very strongly that we need to make nature more accessible to our students. Without hands-on experiences, I fear our students will see ecology as dry and boring instead of exciting and teeming with life. However, I also understand the natural desire to minimize risk; no one wants to see any child hurt.

So this is where we can all draw our own conclusions.  I encourage you to read all of the articles and opinions cited here, as well as find your own. Whatever the answer is, we all need to work together to ensure that our children are given the ability to bond with nature and fall in love with it. That way, there is someone left to preserve it.

The above picture is taken by Christie Lawry.

August 28, 2012

High School Interns on the Radio!

by Melissa Harding

Over the summer, our high school interns take many different educational field trips to learn about sustainability in Pittsburgh. This summer, they took trips as diverse as to the woods of Schenley Park to Conservation Consultants Inc. on the South Side to the botany labs at the University of Pittsburgh.

One of the trips that they took was to the WYEP/WESA studios on the South Side. The interns toured the Community Broadcast Center, which has the distinction of being the first LEED-certified radio station in the nation. While they were touring the studio, they also had a chance to experience a radio interview in the recording studio. The interns were interviewed by Jennifer Szweda Jordan, of the Allegheny Front radio show, about what they feel are the most pressing environmental issues facing us today and how they feel those problems are being addressed.

It was a great experience for the interns to recall what they had learned over the course of the internship and use it to form their own opinions on the topic. Renewable energy sources, moving away from fossil-fuel dependence and reducing waste were among the most popular answers.

If you would like to listen to our incredibly articulate and thoughtful interns in their radio debut, visit the Allegheny Front and check them out!

The above photo was taken by Kate Borger.

August 22, 2012

We are busy organizing a Conservation Psychology Institute with Antioch University New England

by Melissa Harding

Another important focus of the Science Education department is developing collaborative programs in education and psychology research relevant to understanding and promoting positive relationships between humanity and the environment.

As part of that initiative, our staff are working with Antioch University New England (AUNE) in jointly running a Conservation Psychology Institute (CPI) this October. Designed for professionals in museum, zoo, aquarium, botanic garden, nature center, environmental advocacy, media, and other sectors with broad public engagement opportunities from children through adults, the CPI will equip participants with knowledge and skills in the fields of conservation psychology, environmental psychology and ecopsychology to effectively bring about environmental behavior change via work in their own institutions and sectors. The internationally recognized faculty team includes Dr. Louise Chawla, Dr. P. Wesley Schultz, Dr. Thomas Joseph Doherty, Dr. Carol Saunders, and Phipps Director of Science Education, Molly Steinwald.

You can learn more about the CPI and the faculty at

The above photo was taken by Molly Steinwald.
August 20, 2012

Children with Disabilities and Nature

by Melissa Harding

The Children and Nature Network is at it again with another thought-provoking article. This time, the author is journalist William Stothers and the topic is how children with disabilities interact with nature. In My Feet, Six Inches from the Ground, Stothers writes about his struggle maintaining a connection to nature despite being bound to a wheelchair. As a child, Stothers loved to play outside, running through creeks and climbing trees. After a disabling bout with polio at the age of 10, he became wheelchair dependent. Being “6 inches from the ground” in his chair made him feel isolated from nature and his connection to the natural world declined.

“And there were many other “no mores”  No more wandering along the little creek, no more fishing from the bridge, no more exploring the woods, no more riding my bike. Now when I went out, someone pushed me in my wheelchair. My feet stayed put, about six inches off the grass, the sidewalk, the gravel roads. The natural world seemed to slip away, vibrancy fading out of touch. After a while I didn’t notice, caught up with just getting used to doing as much as I could on wheels.”   – William Stothers

As an adult, Stothers lived and worked in an urban environment for many years. It wasn’t until he discovered his love of photography that he started to rekindle his relationship with the land.

Stothers asserts that children with disabilities tend to be more isolated than their non-disabled peers and that having ready access to nature is one way to combat that tendency. He says that teaching children how to interact with the natural world is important to their health and well-being. As environmental educators, this article is a reminder for us to always consider the ways in which we can continually connect all of our students, disabled and not, to the natural world.

“My feet continue to skim six inches above the grass. Still, I can stick my nose closer to the roses in my front yard and take in the perfume. I can rub my hands over the bark on the big tree in my back yard. And even though the techs tell me not to, I can’t stop powering through puddles. Splashing and grinning.”  – William Stothers

For more information on organizations that help people with disabilities gain greater access to nature, check out the websites at the bottom of Stother’s article.

The above photo was taken by Christie Lawry.

August 9, 2012

Friends in the Garden

by Melissa Harding

Last week, our garden was full of new friends…Garden Friends, that is! We wrapped up our last Little Sprouts camp of the summer, Garden Friends, with 16 new 2&3 year-old campers added to our ranks. We learned about what grows in a garden (plants!) and all the critters that help them grow or use them for food and shelter, like rabbits, birds, butterflies and bees.

We explored worms and learned how they help the soil, as well as why they are so slimey. Did you know that if you shine a flashlight through a worm, you can see inside its stomach? Our campers watched the dirt move through their bodies as the worms wiggled on their plates.

We also learned how to tell if your garden has visitors by looking at animals tracks. We used track-shaped sponges to make our own track pictures.

Campers even made their own “garden friends” to take home and plant in their backyards.

Of course, our campers had a great time with their grown-ups as well.

All in all, we had a really fun week learning with our smallest campers.
They have such boundless curiosity and enthusiasm; they are truly a delight to teach!

If your 2&3 year-old is ready for camp, there are plenty more camps in the future! Based on feedback from parents and care-givers, we are offering several different options this year. Our Little Sprouts: Single Servings are one-session camps designed for people who do not have the time to commit to a series. We are also offering our traditional four-day camps, starting with Little Sprouts: Our Four Seasons this fall.

For more information or to sign-up, check out the webpage or call Sarah Bertovich at (412)441-4442 ext. 3925.

We hope to see you there!

The above photos were taken by Christie Lawry and Melissa Harding.

August 6, 2012

Do Outdoor Experiences Help Shape Children’s Brains?

by Melissa Harding

The Children and Nature Network, an online movement to reconnect children to nature, has published another great article by Richard Louv. Louv, most famously known for his prolific naturalist books and essays, is also the co-founder and president of the Children and Nature Network. His article, Nature’s Neurons, asks the question: Do early experiences in the natural world help shape the architecture of young brains? Louv declares that it is time for science to answer this question; he calls on scientists to  further explore this topic and create a better understanding of how nature impacts brain plasticity.

“A growing body of primarily correlative evidence suggests that, even in the densest urban neighborhoods, negative stress, obesity and other health problems are reduced and psychological and physical health improved when children and adults experience more nature in their everyday lives. These studies suggest that nearby nature can also stimulate learning abilities and reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and we know that therapies using gardening or animal companions do improve psychological health. We also know that parks with the richest biodiversity appear to have a positive impact on psychological well-being and social bonding among humans.” – Richard Louv

Louv argues that although we do not know for certain the impact of nature on brain plasticity, it could have a profound effect on reducing stress toxicity. This, in turn, allows young brains to develop more soundly. On the reverse side, Louv asks, does a disconnection from nature cause stress? Hopefully, we will soon find out.

If this debate interests you further, Louv cites some great sources for further reading at the bottom of his article.

The above photo was taken by Melissa Harding.


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