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Introducing The Green Beans & the Litterbugs: A Multimedia Approach to Environmental Education

1525366_695396423825150_1412516447_nIn celebration of National Environmental Education Week and Earth Day next Tuesday April 22, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of the people who read my blog in the United States and around the world. TeachGreenBlog now has readership in over 30 countries! I appreciate your continued support and shared interest in environmental education.

Today, I am pleased to announce the launch of The Green Beans & the Litterbugs at www.getgreenandgrow.com. For the past three years, I have been working with three of my talented and accomplished cousins to develop a unique model of interactive green entertainment for young children and their families. We envision The Green Beans & the Litterbugs as a franchise of engaging children’s programs, trade and ebooks, online games, webisodes, toys and other associated products. The Green Beans stories are designed to entertain young audiences, while promoting basic environmental themes, cultural diversity and positive social behaviors.

We have carefully constructed The Green Beans & the Litterbugs with an international worldview. We adhere to environmentally sustainable practices and support the United Nations’ definition of sustainability, “to meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Initially, we are using our newly launched website and social media to spread the word.

Teach Green with Ecofriendly Characters
It is well documented that children like learning activities more if they involve beloved characters. When they see them on television or online, they want to imitate their behaviors. So why not use these influences to encourage good habits rather than unhealthy ones? In addition, popular characters can also be influential in shaping the ideas, behaviors and purchasing decisions of families with young children.

The Green Beans & the Litterbugs features five members of the Green Bean Team – Ruby Monkey Bean, Bella Brontosaurus Bean, Bentley Bear Bean, Gibbon Monkey Bean, and Crawford Crab Bean. With the help of their roving satellite Bloorb, the Beans travel the globe solving environmental emergencies caused by the Litterbugs. Each Green Bean story highlights a different ecological issue that becomes part of the plot. Real world environmental challenges are placed in the context of animated action that children can absorb and understand.

In order to shape a positive message, we created the Green Beans content with two important themes that run through the story lines. The first is a “green” theme highlighting an environmental issue in a specific geographical location that becomes the setting of the story. Young viewers will have the opportunity to observe how the Green Beans work as a team to respond to the problem, determine its cause and use logic to find a sustainable solution.

The second element that runs through the stories is a “character” theme. Virtues such as truthfulness, helping others and the importance of family are just a few of the positive traits that are subtly embedded into the plot to reinforce pro-social behaviors. These traits are demonstrated in the actions of the Green Beans and help children learn tolerance and conflict resolution by observing their positive example.

Children Virtually Explore the World
Each episode features a different location where a local child and indigenous animal assist the Green Beans in solving the ecological problem. As a result, viewers gain a global perspective of the challenges other kids may face in their part of the world. The stories are fictional and fun, but environmentally, culturally, and geographically correct.

The Green Beans & the Litterbugs is designed to also provide factual information about nature and the environment that can even be used as a supplement to classroom curriculum. Our website is full of interesting “field facts” pertaining to geography, habitats, flora, fauna and cultural influences on the environment. We host “Bloorb’s Blog” with up-to-date information on green events, activities and crafts, as well as sustainable tips for healthy living. We also welcome feedback from children who are making a difference in their communities. It is truly a green movement designed just for kids.

It is our ultimate goal to lead young viewers to a better understanding of the world around them in order to prepare for a sustainable future. We are seeking to partner with like-minded organizations that will join us in further developing The Green Beans & the Litterbugs for the benefit of kids everywhere. I hope you will visit our newly launched website at www.getgreenandgrow.com and “like” us on Facebook.Green Beans Logo

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth

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In the Garden: A Universal Sanctuary for the Body, Mind and Spirit

The next time our leaders plan to discuss important issues that affect all of humankind… maybe they should meet in the garden. Throughout the ages, its virtues have proven to be common ground that everyone can agree on.

A Blue Morpho butterfly on an orchid at the Cleveland Botanical Garden

A Blue Morpho butterfly on an orchid at the Cleveland Botanical Garden

So, what is the common denominator that brings us to the garden?

I believe that connecting with the earth in direct and meaningful ways helps us to connect with what is best within ourselves, making us healthier people overall. Throughout time, gardens and parks have not only served to nourish and heal our bodies, but also to feed our minds through the study of the natural world, and replenish our spirits with its beauty.

The First Gardens: Food Security
Forest gardening is the world’s oldest form of food-based plant production. Although this is not a term that is widely used in modern horticultural circles, the early humans responsible for the development of forest gardens may have been more sensible than we give them credit for. During pre historical times, forest gardens first emerged along tropical riverbanks and in the foothills where monsoon rains drenched the earth at regular intervals. Families transitioned from a hunter-gatherer existence and began to improve their immediate environment by identifying and protecting useful fruit and nut trees, herbs, vines and perennial vegetables which were of direct benefit to humans. Foreign species were also incorporated into these early gardens and walls were built to protect family plots from animals and intruders.

The Healing Power of Plants
Over time, people looked to nature for ways to treat diseases and alleviate pain. The origins of plant-based medical treatments cannot be attributed to one specific civilization, but developed concurrently in cultures around the globe. Natural healing systems can be traced to the traditions of the Ayurvedic and Unani people of the Indian subcontinent, Chinese and Tibetan cultures in Asia, the Native Americans of North America, the Amazonians of South America and several local tribal systems within Africa. There is also evidence of medicinal plant recipes from Egyptian and Middle Eastern cultures. In fact, the oldest written evidence of the deliberate use of plants for medicinal purposes was written on Sumerian clay slabs found in area south of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in modern-day Iraq. The artifact included formulas for various ailments using 250 plant species.

A fresco from the Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, 18th Dynasty

A fresco from the Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, 18th Dynasty

The Gardens of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and Asia: An Expression of Cultural Beliefs
The first recorded examples of formal gardens created for reasons other than subsistence, date back to the early civilizations of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and Asia. They began for a variety of reasons beyond basic food production. Pleasure, prestige, power and possibly even prehistoric instincts of our nomadic beginnings, made people yearn for wide-open spaces to experience and enjoy. Later, formal gardens were rooted in the divine and reflected the timeless quest for the meaning of life and our place within it.

Ancient Egypt
Gardens were essential to the lives of ancient Egyptians. They created neatly ordered green spaces filled with fruit, nut and ornamental trees as well as flowers, grape vines and papyrus. Gardens also had religious symbolism associated with specific gods such as Orisis, Nut, Isis and Hathor. There is evidence of elaborate cultivated grounds around tombs and temples to honor the deceased and provide them with natural spaces to enjoy in the afterlife.

Hand-colored engraving of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, 16th Century by Maarten van Heemskerck

Hand-colored engraving of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, 16th Century, by Maarten van Heemskerck

Mesopotamia
The imperial gardens of Mesopotamia were grand…even by modern-day standards. In fact, the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon were once considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, although no archeological evidence remains to prove their existence or original location. The Assyrian garden differed from the symmetrical Egyptian garden, because they incorporated the natural terrain into their cultivated spaces. Assyrian kings brought back animal and plant species from foreign invasions and used their imperial gardens as evidence of their conquests and military might.

The Persian Chahār Bāgh
Traditional Persian gardens may have originated as early as 4000 B.C. The Persians are known for the chahār bāgh style garden layout, (chahār meaning “four” and bāgh, “gardens”). The Persian garden was designed to emulate Eden, with four rivers and four quadrants that represent the world. Typical designs often feature water channels that run through each of the four quadrants and connect to a central pool. The idea of the garden as an expression of an earthly paradise (derived from the Old Persian word “paridaida”), spread through Persian culture during the Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 B.C.). The Persians also influenced garden design in other cultures from Andalusia to India and beyond. The Taj Mahal is one of the largest Persian garden interpretations in the world, from the era of the Mughal Empire.

Asian Garden Traditions
The earliest Chinese gardens were created by emperors and aristocracy…and were designed to impress. These modified landscapes could be more accurately described as vast parks filled with select plant and animal species that were used for hunting and leisurely indulgences. Later, gentleman scholars, poets, government officials and merchants began to create more intimate spaces for personal reflection and escape from the outside world. Over time, the gardens and parks took on a sacred role and have been influenced by Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Daoist, Shinto and Modernist beliefs.

A typical Chinese garden has enclosed walls, a water feature, rock formations, trees and flowers, all arranged in halls and pavilions connected by winding paths that lead visitors through a series of composed landscape scenes. These spaces are meant to evoke a feeling of being part of the natural world and reflect the traditional Chinese values of sensibility, self-confidence and harmony between man and the universe. The constantly changing scenery, altered by the effects of the seasons and changing light, is believed to promote philosophical inspiration and intellectual thinking.

Dry garden in Koyoto, Japan April 2004 by Stephane D'Alu

Dry garden in Koyoto, Japan April 2004 by Stephane D’Alu

Japanese gardens were developed under the influences of their Chinese neighbors. However, the Japanese gradually began to create designs based on the unique terrain of their island archipelago and the Shinto religion. Their gardens first appeared on the island of Honshu, and were shaped by the distinct characteristics of the Honshu landscape with rugged volcanic peaks, narrow valleys, mountain streams with waterfalls and pebble beaches.

Japanese garden styles serve many different purposes. Zen gardens are designed to promote enlightenment through meditation and minimalist design leaves room for spiritual thinking. Roji are simple gardens with teahouses, where the Japanese tea ceremony is conducted. Promenade gardens feature carefully composed landscapes along a winding path.

Throughout recorded history, the creation of gardens and cultivation of plants is universal to civilizations around the world. Although designs vary due to religious beliefs, cultural heritage, climate and landscape terrain, gardens and parks all share a basic unifying element. Experiencing the pleasures of nature make people feel better, both mentally and physically.

The Roman Empire in the 3rd Century A.D.

The Roman Empire in the 3rd Century A.D.

The Age of Exploration and the Business of Gardening
Over time, societal structures became more organized and people began to categorize and cultivate useful plant species for their healthful and healing powers. As people ventured beyond their immediate environment, they began to share their knowledge with other cultures, thus ushering in a new era of international commerce and trade.

The rise and fall of the Roman Empire had a great influence on horticulture. Romans were avid gardeners. From the grand landscapes of imperial country estates to the most humble private plots behind city houses, they treasured gardens both as places for relaxation and as plots to grow ornamental plants and trees, as well as fruits and vegetables. Like the ebb and flow of a great wave, as the Roman Empire expanded to include huge swaths of the Eurasian continent from Britain to North Africa and Portugal to Asia Minor, they flooded every corner of their newly conquered lands with gardens. Later, as their influence began to recede, they left behind the seeds of their horticultural practices that remained rooted in place long after they were gone.

The Romans also influenced the monks. Foundation documents of numerous Christian monasteries, note that gardening was seen as an act of humility and also a necessary vocation. From a utilitarian standpoint, vegetable and herb gardens helped provide both nutritional and medicinal crops, that were used to feed or treat the monks and, in some cases, the outside community. These gardens became the model for the physic gardens (medicinal herb gardens) that would later appear in Italy and other areas of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Another powerful wave swept the globe in the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th centuries. Marco Polo’s expeditions to Persia, China and Southeast Asia, along with the discovery of America in 1492 and Vasco De Gama’s journey to India in 1498, eventually led to the beginning of European overseas expansion and the rise of colonial empires. As a result, contact between the Old and New Worlds produced the Columbian Exchange: a wide transfer of plants, animals, foods, human populations and culture between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

At this point, the Age of Discovery enveloped the world, and with it, the rise of international trade. Organizations such as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid were set up to try and cultivate new species that were being brought back from expeditions to tropical locations. They also helped found gardens in tropical regions to cultivate newly discovered plant species for commercial use. These distant tropical plantations were created almost solely to receive and cultivate commercial crops such as cloves, tea, coffee, breadfruit, cinchona, palm oil and chocolate.

Down House, the former home of the English naturalist Charles Darwin and his family

Down House, the former home of the English naturalist Charles Darwin and his family

The Charles Darwin Era and The Origin of Species
As trade routes expanded and new lands were being surveyed, botanists and naturalists were commissioned to accompany these expeditions and document the flora and fauna along the way. By some twist of fate, Charles Darwin, a seemingly ordinary young man encouraged by his father to become a country parson, instead accepted a commission (without pay) as a naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, a scientific ship assigned by the British Admiralty to survey the east and west coasts of South America. As the Beagle cast off from the shores of England, no one could have predicted the ripple effect that would be created by this monumental journey…washing away traditional beliefs of divine providence and the immutability (unchanging nature) of species and replacing it with new findings that would uproot the scientific community worldwide.

Darwin spent the next five years on a voyage around the world, collecting natural specimens, including birds, plants and fossils. He had the rare opportunity to study the principles of botany, zoology and geology through a wide-angle lens. The varied nature of ecological systems from South America and the Galapagos archipelago to the Pacific Islands, gave Darwin unique insights into nature itself. He began to see patterns of adaptation that countered established creationist theories. Upon his return to England, he fine-tuned and double-checked his theories through detailed experiments, anticipating a strong backlash from the church. With much trepidation, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection in 1859, and created a tidal wave of controversy between science and religion that remains to this day.

Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history. Why? Because he discovered nature’s golden rule…in order to thrive, we must adapt and live as part of our environment, not apart from it.

21st Century Gardening and the Green Movement
Scientific research has come a long way since the days of Darwin. And yet, we still resist basic ecological principles that ensure our continued health and wellbeing as a species. We are more knowledgeable and connected than any other time in human history. Information and ideas circle the globe at the speed of thought. Food, medicine and other plant-based products are imported and exported in a complex network of international trade. However, even knowing what we do, the earth’s natural resources have been exploited with little thought given to the consequences of our actions. As a result, a new wave of change is looming on the horizon. Climate change…and this time nature is at the helm.

Certain human activities have been identified as causes for recent changes in climate patterns on the Earth and the results of these changes may have a significant impact on fragile ecosystems around the world. According to the United States National Research Council’s report titled America’s Climate Choices: Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change; National Research Council:

“Science has made enormous inroads in understanding climate change and its causes, and is beginning to help develop a strong understanding of current and potential impacts that will affect people today and in coming decades. This understanding is crucial because it allows decision makers to place climate change in the context of other large challenges facing the nation and the world. There are still some uncertainties, and there always will be in understanding a complex system like Earth’s climate. Nevertheless, there is a strong, credible body of evidence, based on multiple lines of research, documenting that climate is changing and that these changes are in large part caused by human activities. “

Today, the nature of gardening is returning to its roots. Environmental education programs are now being offered in schools, parks and botanical gardens around the world. Innovators are building rooftop greenhouses and retrofitting high-rise buildings with vertical gardens and green spaces. Urban gardens are replacing blighted neighborhoods and there is renewed interest in the family farm. According to the World Health Organization, currently, about 80% of the world’s population relies on plants for their primary health care and some 35,000 to 70,000 species have been used as medicines. In today’s global pharmaceutical market, more than 50 major drugs originate from tropical plants. There is also an increasing amount of evidence that humans derive direct psychological benefit from exposure to nature. In retrospect, this should come as no surprise.

Time spent in the garden reaffirms the fact that our body, mind and spirit are deeply rooted in the natural world, regardless of how complex our lives may become on the surface.

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth
TG13_White Orchids


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The Seiberling Legacy: One family’s passion and purpose helped to shape the landscape of America

The Manor House

The Manor House

In the spring of 1912, F.A. and Gertrude Seiberling traveled to England, along with their adult daughter Irene and New York architect Charles Schneider, to seek inspiration for the Tudor revival-style home they were planning to build six miles northwest of Akron. The founder of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and his family had completed a tour of some of the oldest manor houses and castles in the country and were scheduled to return to America on April 10 aboard the maiden voyage of a fabulous new luxury steamer leaving out of Southampton bound for New York City. Just before departure, their British guide suggested they delay their return in order to visit a 300 year-old manor house that was being razed not far from London. Sir Walter Tyndale, a notable European painter and illustrator, had helped them to gain access to many fine estates that were not ordinarily open to the public and he felt this particular home, in the midst of deconstruction, would give them unique insights into the underlying framework of a typical English structure from that time period. The Seiberlings heartily agreed and delayed their travel plans as a result.

Imagine their stunned shock when, days later, headlines of the London newspapers screamed of unprecedented tragedy in the North Atlantic. The Seiberlings had originally been booked to return aboard the Titanic and they owed a debt of gratitude to Sir Walter’s last minute suggestion that turned out to be providential for many reasons. The decision to extend their trip not only may have charted a new course for the fate of the Seiberling family, but also the completion of Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens and the legacy that would include future conservation efforts of the natural spaces within the Cuyahoga Valley corridor between Akron and Cleveland, and millions of acres of wilderness in the western states and Alaska.

The Seiberling entourage returned home later in May aboard the RMS Lusitania to begin work on their family home that would prove to be a flagship of a more durable sort.

Family History
The Seiberling family has been connected to the land since Nathan Seiberling brought his family to Summit County in 1831. He prospered in the growing community and fathered 15 children. His oldest son John Franklin possessed similar entrepreneurial spirit and became an inventor and manufacturer of timesaving agricultural equipment. John Seiberling’s mower-reaper invention allowed for an increase in productivity to meet the demands of the Civil War, despite the loss of farmers and laborers who served in the army. In 1865, Seiberling moved his operation north to Akron, where good rail and canal service greatly enhanced distribution capabilities. By the last decade of the 19th century, he had become the richest man in Akron.

John Franklin had eleven children and two of his sons, Frank Augustus (F.A.) and Charles W. inherited their father’s business acumen and became involved in the family enterprise. Unfortunately, the farm machinery company was a casualty of the severe depression of the 1890’s. However, F.A. rebounded from this temporary setback and decided that the rubber tire industry had greater potential. In 1898, he founded Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, named for Charles Goodyear who invented the vulcanization process – the hardening and strengthening of rubber – in 1839. As popularity of the automobile skyrocketed, so did F.A.’s income, reaching $3 million per year by the late 1910’s.

The Gilded Age in Northeast Ohio
A variety of factors played a role in the Northeast Ohio’s rise to prominence. Strategically positioned on the Great Lakes, the area provided easy access to an abundance of natural resources, and improved transportation infrastructure placed the cities of Cleveland and Akron at the epicenter of industrial innovation.

Rapid economic growth after the Civil War brought about a convergence of business genius that contributed to a surge of unprecedented wealth for a select group of entrepreneurs. Men like Henry Ford in Detroit, John D. Rockefeller in Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie in Pittsburgh and Seiberling in Akron, saw the long range potential for new products and services in post-war America. They were a fellowship of fierce competitors, determined in their pursuit of financial success and influence. These men operated on a grand scale, thriving on the risk and excitement of business interests, as well as enjoying the rewards of luxurious living that their business success provided. They were famous for throwing extravagant parties and building palatial homes.

The Seiberlings, however, were determined to build more than just a rich man’s showplace. They wanted to create a gracious gathering place for family, friends, and industrial, cultural and political figures of the time. F.A. began to accumulate property in an area he explored as a youth and eventually amassed a huge parcel of land six miles northwest of the city, atop one of Akron’s seven hills overlooking the Cuyahoga Valley. His wife, Gertrude, enrolled at Buchtel College (now the University of Akron) and took courses in interior decorating, landscape architecture and other related courses in preparation for the project. After considering a wide variety of proposals including an Italian villa, a colonial farm and even a French chateau, they chose to build a Tudor revival-style country home recapturing the spirit and quality of medieval craftsmanship, rather than replicating some of the opulent styles that had come to be associated with the Gilded Age. They named their new home Stan Hywet (pronounced HEE-wit) meaning ”hewn stone ” in Old English, originally chosen because there was a sandstone quarry on the property.

The Manor House
When the construction of Stan Hywet Hall was complete, it was the largest home in Ohio measuring 64,500 square feet and included more than 65 rooms, 23 bathrooms and 23 fireplaces. In keeping with their commitment to health and physical fitness, they also installed an indoor swimming pool known as the “Plunge”, a four-hole golf course, walking and horseback riding trails, two tennis courts and an indoor gymnasium and bowling alley in the basement.

The Stage just outside the great Music Room where outdoor performances were held for friends and family.

The Stage just outside the great Music Room where outdoor performances were held for friends and family.

Remarkably, each room was designed to be unique, decorated with the finest antiques and furnishings from around the world. The Music Room with 18-foot-high molded plaster ceilings, crystal and amber chandeliers and fine oak paneling was the place where the Seiberlings hosted grand parties and family gatherings. On a stage at the far end of the room, they entertained guests with Shakespearian plays, concerts and recitals. The South Terrace doors extended the room outside and into the surrounding gardens.

The Gardens

The Birch Tree Allee leading to the Tea Houses

The Birch Tree Allee leading to the Tea Houses

The exterior living spaces were impressive in their own right. Architect Charles Schneider worked closely with the renowned landscape architect Warren Manning, whose extensive knowledge of horticulture and plant specimens was also utilized in such notable projects as the Chicago Columbian Exhibition of 1893, the planting design of George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate and William Gwinn Mather’s Gwinn Estate in Cleveland’s Bratenahl Village on the shoreline overlooking Lake Erie.

Both men paid close attention to architectural details to ensure the elements of nature were experienced around the home, and also from within. The position of doors and windows, even the position of the house itself, set in accordance with the summer solstice, ensured maximum appreciation of nature. A 550-foot long birch tree allée was designed to connect the north end of the manor to twin Tea Houses that overlooked the Lagoon, where the Seiberling family would swim, fish, and canoe in the summer months, and ice skate in winter. A corresponding London Plane tree allée extended south, leading to a stone underpass that connected to an area known as the Dell, where a rim of rock ledges formed a natural amphitheater amid a clearing in the old-growth forest.

The Japanese Garden

The Japanese Garden

Directly behind the house, a winding Japanese Garden descended the bluff and a walled English Garden was designed and installed by the legendary Ellen Biddle Shipman, described by Manning to be “one of the best, if not the best flower garden makers in America.” Shipman worked with Gertrude Seiberling to create a hidden garden reminiscent of the classic English children’s novel, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. When completed, it was said to be Gertrude’s favorite refuge and the place where she went for solitude, and to spend time with her children.

The English Garden by Ellen Biddle Shipman

The English Garden by Ellen Biddle Shipman

Manning designed many other structures to support and complement the estate including a Carriage House, Gate Lodge, and a Gothic-style Conservatory, used for fruit and flower growing, as well as a green retreat during the long winter months.

Mr. Seiberling once insisted, “We will have in our new home something for everyone no matter on what plane they approach it, whether physical, intellectual or spiritual.” True to his word, F.A. shared his new home with extended family, a circle of community friends, business associates, political figures and dignitaries from around the world.

Early Community Efforts
The period from 1910 to the early 1920’s was characterized by social, economic and political unrest that challenged traditional notions of class structure. During this time, the city of Akron had tripled in size and poor planning led to the construction of crudely built houses on small lots with a lack of amenities such as schools, parks and playgrounds. Working-class neighborhoods were notable for their congestion and grim appearance. Although Stan Hywet stood as a symbol of the traditional elite, the Seiberlings used their passion for the natural world to soften the harsh realities of the tumult that existed elsewhere in their community.

Gertrude Seiberling founded the Akron Garden Club in 1924 and also helped to coordinate similar efforts across the country. The exquisite gardens on the Seiberling estate served as inspirational settings for her various gatherings. F.A. complemented his wife’s efforts and became an influential member of the Akron Park Board where he convinced the board to employ Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., the son of the renowned designer of New York’s Central Park and an accomplished landscape architect in his own right, to create a master plan for the community as he had also done for the city of Cleveland. F.A. donated the hillsides on the northern edge of the estate and Sand Run Creek to the Akron park initiative. His gift was the first major tract of land given to create a metropolitan park in the area and some of the most beautiful landscape in the Akron system.

Passing the Torch
John F. Seiberling was the grandson of F.A. and Gertrude Seiberling and lived in the Gate House at Stan Hywet with his father Fred Seiberling and mother, Henrietta. During his formative years on the Seiberling estate, John learned about the natural world from his father, Fred Seiberling. In his biography by Daniel Nelson, A Passion for the Land, Seiberling recalls one particular spring morning in 1926 walking through the woods with his father and sister. Fred “told us the names of the different kinds of plant and trees as we went along…It was a magical, eye-opening experience. It left me with a new, conscious love of nature.” He also developed a strong sense of ethics and an appreciation of culture from his mother. However, at that time, he knew very little about the world beyond the boundaries of the estate.

Twin Tea Houses overlooking the Quarry where the family enjoyed water sports.

Twin Tea Houses overlooking the Quarry where the family enjoyed water sports.

His parents, with the backing of F.A. and Gertrude, decided he should attend Staunton Military Academy, a college preparatory school in Virginia. There, he grew into a studious young man. He graduated as an honor student and although three of his uncles were Princeton alumni, he attended Harvard instead.

Seiberling flourished in Cambridge and was fascinated with history. The influence of several notable professors, combined with the liberal atmosphere of the university, convinced him of the possibilities of an activist’s role as an agent for change. He graduated from college as a New Deal Democrat and enlisted in the army to serve his country.

The destruction of Europe and the great losses incurred during World War II made a lasting impression on Seiberling. He emerged from the war a decorated officer with an expanded worldview. Upon his return to the U.S., he attended Columbia Law School on the G.I. Bill, graduated with honors and then joined a leading Wall Street law firm. He was married and started a family, settling into big-city life, far from the green-carpeted hills of the Cuyahoga Valley.

During his time in New York, John longed for the green spaces he remembered from his youth and took up downhill skiing and photography to fill the void. He vacationed out west and developed a passion for the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, beautiful landscapes that strengthened his commitment to wilderness preservation in later years.

U.S. Representative John F. Seiberling
In January of 1954, John accepted a position as a corporate attorney for Goodyear and was drawn back to Akron and the extended Seiberling family. While the city was relatively unchanged, the same could not be said for the state of Seiberling family affairs. Gertrude Seiberling had died in 1946. F.A. continued to live on the estate in poor health. By the late 1940’s, the Seiberling children expressed concern about the future of the estate and began to discuss their options. The personal fortune that had created Stan Hywet was depleted by this time and none of the family members were able to afford the upkeep of the property. With incredible sacrifice, the family agreed that Stan Hywet should pass into the public realm and be made useful to the community, according to their parents’ wishes. The death of F.A. Seiberling in 1955 marked the end of family occupation of Stan Hywet Hall, but only the beginning of a family legacy that would last to the present day.

The Seiberling’s presented their dilemma to the community who responded with great interest. A group of volunteers was assembled to study the feasibility of converting the estate into a museum. On April 29, 1956, the Stan Hywet Hall Foundation and a board of trustees were formed and the estate became a non-profit entity. John Seiberling handled much of the legal work for the foundation for many years and became a strong advocate for the preservation of many similar buildings of historical significance throughout the country.

During those years, he and his family lived on 18 acres a few miles north of the original Seiberling estate in the town of Bath. His neighbors were actively involved in efforts to save the Cuyahoga Valley from developers and environmental degradation and introduced him to their cause. John Seiberling became passionately involved at this local level, fueled by fond memories of the forests and fields he had experienced in his youth.

In 1968, Seiberling decided to run for Congress, partially in opposition to the Vietnam War, but also with the conviction to reform Congress and ensure that public resources were directed to domestic issues. Seiberling used his position in Congress to push through legislation that would not only save the Cuyahoga Valley, which would eventually become Ohio’s only National Park, but he was also instrumental in creating 100 million acres of parks and wildlife refuges in Alaska and additional protected lands in national forests across the United States. As Chair of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands, he helped to create urban parks and promoted wildlife protection as the best approach to public land management.

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park
Today, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (CVNP) encompasses 33,000 acres between Cleveland and Akron and is one of the most visited parks in the system with over two million visitors each year. Outdoor recreational opportunities include biking, golfing, hiking, skiing and riding on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad. The park is the summer home to the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center, which also hosts a variety of concerts featuring rock, jazz and country music in an open-air amphitheater and sweeping lawn that together can accommodate over 19,000 people.

The barn at the Inn at Brandywine Falls in the CVNP

The barn at the Inn at Brandywine Falls in the CVNP

Historical buildings and structures have also been preserved within the boundaries of the park, such as Hale Farm & Village, remnants of the Ohio & Erie Canal and working farms that represent the rural heritage of the Cuyahoga Valley. In 1999, the CVNP established “The Countryside Initiative” to rehabilitate historical farms within the park, supporting a new generation of farmers and also educating the general public on the history of the family farm.

CVNP_BWFalls_FallsMost importantly, the land, its habitats and cultural elements have been preserved and offer a unique glimpse into the origins of the Cuyahoga Valley and also the growth of our nation. From the glacier-scarred landscape before settlement, to early farming efforts of the nineteenth century, as well as the developments of our transportation infrastructure and modern day recreation facilities, the natural and cultural history of the area is protected for all to experience, explore and enjoy.

Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens
Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens still stands just beyond the southern border of the park and is open to the public. The Seiberling flagship is a symbol of the past, but with a renewed present-day purpose. Set on 70 acres amidst a sea of rhododendron and flowering trees, the Manor House remains “a place with something for everyone”, just as the Seiberlings envisioned it, and maybe even more than they could have imagined.

Stan Hywet has become a center for programs emphasizing nature and the virtues of outdoor activities, with a variety of exhibits that highlight the historical, cultural and horticultural aspects of the early 20th century. However, it is more than just a museum. Couples come to the estate to exchange wedding vows in the Dell, or the English garden or on the West Terrace & Overlook. Shakespeare is still performed on the grounds in an outdoor theater near the Lagoon. Children play on the Great Lawn and search for hidden treasure in a game called “geocaching”, using GPS technology and portable hand held devices. Teachers bring students to the estate to learn about a variety of subjects, including science, local history, literature and more. Each season, visitors come from near and far to experience the legacy that the Seiberlings left behind.

The Legacy Lives On

Western Vista Overlooking the Cuyahoga Valley

Western Vista Overlooking the Cuyahoga Valley

As I stood at the front entryway on a recent visit to Stan Hywet Hall, I glanced up at the visionary statement etched into the family crest nearly a century ago. “Non Nobis Solum” (Not for Us Alone). I stepped across the threshold and my gaze was immediately drawn past the finery of the Great Hall and through the open rear door to the vista of the Cuyahoga Valley. I was reminded that, in word and deed, the ideals that inspired one family to make a difference, are as relevant today as they were then. Their passion for nature has truly been a gift bequeathed to us all.

Elizabeth


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School’s Out. Now What? Teach Green Summer Reading List for Kids

I am the mother of four children, three boys and a girl. I will always remember the sound of the school bus as it came to a stop outside our front door on the last day of class. I still associate its screeching brakes with the energy that was unleashed in my household the minute my exuberant kids raced through the back door, shedding book bags and uniforms as they ran. I learned early on that the best way to channel an over abundance of youthful enthusiasm (and preserve the sane existence I had come to appreciate during the school year) was to get them interested and involved in stimulating activities as quickly as possible.
The Farm House
So, it became a family tradition that as soon as everyone was finished with school, we would load up the Suburban and head to my parents farm in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  Here, they had 200 acres to explore, enjoy and… most importantly…expend all the excess energy that had accumulated over the past school year.  However, before we left, we always stopped at our local library and picked out books for summer reading. Often their choices involved interesting animals, far away places and the adventures of kids in nature. I can still see them sitting on the front porch of the farm, reading and then running to the woods or the creek in the pasture behind the barn to see what they could discover for themselves.

Sadly, my kids are all grown now, but they still go back to visit the farm whenever they can. Hopefully, one day when they have kids of their own, they will continue the family tradition. Until then, they have fond memories of the first week of summer break.

Just the other day, I heard the school bus drive by (no, I didn’t flinch), but it got me thinking … I stopped by the library that day and headed to the children’s section out of curiosity (and a bit of nostalgia), this time without my boisterous crew. I was pleased to discover many new titles along with some old favorites that I would like to pass along to those who still brace themselves for the summer surge of activity and are looking for inspiration to get their kids outside and active.

Here is what I found…

Can We Save the Tiger? by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Vicky White (Candlewick Press, 2011) Age Range: 5-8 years
Written by conservationist Martin Jenkins, this non-fiction account of the challenges we face trying to protect endangered species is an excellent introduction to the subject. Beautifully illustrated and complete with interesting facts from the field, readers begin to understand the interconnections between species, habitats and the actions of humans.

City Green by DyAnne DiSalvo-Ryan (Morrow Junior Books, 1994) Age Range: 4-8 years
Marcy has big plans to clean up the empty lot across the street and grow a garden. Everyone in the community is pitching in … all except Old Man Hammer. But wait, why is he digging in the garden at night? Learn how green spaces in the middle of the city can bring hope and happiness to the people who live there.

EcoMazes: 12 Earth Adventures by Roxie Munro (Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., 2010) Age Range: 7 years and up
Did you know that we are all a part of an ecosystem? From polar ice caps to tropical rain forests and everywhere in between, EcoMazes is a fun and interesting way to explore Earth’s ecosystems and learn about the animals that live within them. Take a journey through twelve intricately crafted habitats and find over 350 animals hiding within the mazes. An answer key at the back of the book is loaded with interesting facts about each area.

Farewell to Shady Glade by Bill Peet (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966) Age Range: 5-8 years
A half dozen rabbits, a pair of possums, a single skunk, five green frogs, one bullfrog, and an old raccoon leave town on the train to avoid the bulldozers that threaten their home. Beloved author, Bill Peet teaches an important lesson about the animals that live in and around our cities.

North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration by Nick Bowson and illustrated by Patrick Benson (Candlewick Press, 2011) Age Range: 7 years and up
Join millions of animals as they travel hundreds – even thousands – of miles to their summer breeding grounds in the arctic. Wildlife author Nick Bowson and award-winning illustrator Patrick Benson tell the story of the greatest journey on earth in a way that is easy to understand and visually compelling.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Shoenherr (Philomel Books, 1987) Age Range: 3-8 years
As a father and daughter embark on an owling expedition into the woods at night, readers are reminded that the bonds between humans and nature often transcend words and can inspire great wonder – a timeless favorite of parents and teachers alike.

Secrets of the Garden by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld and illustrated by Priscilla LaMont (Random House Children’s Books, 2012) Age Range: 5-9 years
Alice’s family plants a vegetable garden each spring, and this budding naturalist reports all she sees about how the plants grow, what insects come to eat the plants, and what birds and animals come to eat the insects.  It’s the food chain, right in her backyard!  A fun way to learn about science – and perhaps inspire kids to eat their vegetables!

The Tree by Dana Lyons and illustrated by David Danioth (Illumination Arts Publishing Company, Inc., 2002) Age Range: 4 years and up
A powerful admonition about the fragile connections between all living things and the importance preserving nature. While camping in the Olympic Rain Forest, author Dana Lyons emerged from the woods with a fully formed song, The Tree, a message he believes came to him from an ancient Douglas fir tree.

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter (Harcourt, Inc., 2008) Age Range: 4-8 years
A true story about Wangari Maathi of Kenya, who returns from school in America to find the trees in her village are gone and the land is barren. Learn how Wangari motivates an army of women to bring peace, prosperity and millions of green trees back to her homeland.

The Water Hole by Graeme Base (Puffin Books, 2004) Age Range: 5-8 years
The water hole is a gathering place for animals of all shapes and sizes. But wait! As more and more animals come to drink, the hole is getting smaller and smaller. Graeme Base has created a beautiful (and fun) depiction of wild animals from around the world in a clever counting story with a life-affirming theme.

Happy summer reading!

A final word of caution…Creating eco-friendly kids has a downside. After one year-end trip to the farm, I was unpacking suitcases and heard snickering from the front of the house. Fully aware of all the mischief that four fun-loving children can create, I wisely stopped what I was doing and went to investigate. Sure enough, there was an open glass jar on my pink marble floor. The lid was nowhere to be found (more snickering). And then, much to my dismay, something jumped out at me! I uttered words no mother ever wants to hear herself say…

“You kids get in here right now and get these grasshoppers out of the foyer!”

ElizabethSarah & Bailey on a recent visit to the fa

 

Note – All of the above-mentioned titles were available at our local library and are also sold online at amazon.com.


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Interview with Cory Ramsey, Manager of Equine Programs at Achievement Centers for Children’s Camp Cheerful – Connecting with Nature on Horseback – Part Two

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April is National Autism Month. Autism is a neural development disorder characterized by both verbal and non-verbal communication impairments, hyper focus on narrowly restricted areas of interest and repetitive speech patterns and behaviors. The number of children diagnosed with autism has been increasing dramatically since the 1980’s and the prevalence of children on the autism spectrum is currently thought to be approximately 1 in 88.

Typical treatment programs focus on behavior modification, structured teaching, speech and language therapy and social therapy. Various medications are also used to treat problems associated with autism spectrum disorders. However, there is currently no known cure.

Many alternative therapies are available, including therapeutic riding programs. While research into equine assisted therapy is fairly new, anecdotal evidence shows that the effects of horseback riding on the behavior of autistic kids is often so powerful, that some children respond in ways that cannot be accomplished in any other setting. Equine therapy also provides therapeutic benefits to children with a wide range of other mental, physical and behavioral challenges as well.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Cory Ramsey, Manager of the Equine Programs at Camp Cheerful in Strongsville, Ohio, to talk about their therapeutic riding program and the benefits of providing kids with meaningful experiences in nature.

Elizabeth: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

Camp Cheerful has a long history of providing outdoor recreation to children with disabilities. However, the equine program has been a more recent addition to your camp programs, correct?

Cory: Yes. Camp Cheerful always had farm animals here, including horses, but they formally became a therapeutic riding center in 2005. The program originated from families that were looking for the option of equine therapy and the camp staff recognized the need to formalize it. They made the decision to become an accredited riding center and started fundraising to build the barn. They went through the accreditation process with NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association), which is now PATH (Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship).

Elizabeth: Exactly how does a riding center become accredited?

Cory: PATH has standards for all accredited centers that are members. We are required to be in compliance with the treatment of the horses, the safety of the client, instructors and the volunteers. The standards also include the certification process for instructors. They have to complete a written test, a lesson plan and teach a mock lesson to other students. They are required to physically ride a horse and are tested for their riding skills as well. Instructors also need to gain overall knowledge of cognitive, physical, emotional and behavioral disabilities so that they can better understand and serve the client. PATH does a preliminary site visit for the initial accreditation and then they come back every five years to ensure the standards are maintained.

Elizabeth: Were you a part of the program since its inception?

Cory: No. I came a year later.

Elizabeth: What led you to Camp Cheerful?

Cory: I was looking for a career path that would allow me to follow my passion, which has always been horses and children. About a year after the program started, I heard they had an opening for a Volunteer Coordinator, so I applied for the position and started out working part-time.

Elizabeth: It takes a lot of volunteers to keep a therapeutic riding program running smoothly. One rider may require as many as three volunteers. I have always been amazed by the commitment and loyalty of the Camp Cheerful volunteers who return year after year to help out. I know you have since passed the responsibility of Volunteer Coordinator along to others, but you were the one who initially established and managed this incredible group of people. What’s your secret?

Cory: Well, of course I’d like to take the credit, but in reality, it is just a matter of connecting with people. Initially, volunteers will approach us for their own reasons. Whether it’s that time in life to give back, whether they’re required to do service hours for school, have extra time on their hands or maybe they just love horses. There is something that initially draws the person to Camp and to our program.

Once they’re here, I try to discover their interests, and cultivate those interests over time. So if there is someone that has always loved horses and never had the chance to be around them, I try to bring them in and help them to learn about the horse. Sometimes a student comes to do service hours for school and he or she may only need eight hours …and four years later they’re still here. I absolutely cannot take any credit for that. I attribute it to many things… the relationships that the volunteers have with the riders and also the bonds that are built between volunteers.

Ultimately, I think it’s important to create a good positive culture so people feel welcome. They all come with different degrees of expertise in different areas and so we always want to make sure people are comfortable here and don’t feel intimidated. I try to bring everyone in and work to their strengths, help them with their challenges and educate them in areas that they have interest in.

Elizabeth: Do they need special training?

Cory: We provide a two-hour orientation to make sure that the program is what they are expecting. I always like to say that the orientation is their opportunity for an out. Volunteers must be age 14 and older and be able to walk for an hour. We also want to make sure that people understand the scope of the environment that they will be working in, and that they have the maturity to handle certain behavioral challenges.

It’s amazing. There are families that become really close to certain volunteers. Some relationships have started here and continue on outside of Camp. Sometimes, part of the reason that the rider continues to participate in the program is due to a particular volunteer and part of the reason a volunteer continues to help out is because of the rider. Once they’re hooked…they stay.

Elizabeth: That’s what you want, right?

Cory: Yes. I love it!

Elizabeth: There is a growing awareness that working with and riding horses can be physically beneficial to people. I have always loved horses and have been riding for years. When I was younger, I didn’t really think about my relationship with a horse. I was just having fun. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the special bond that I had formed with my horses throughout the years. What about you? How did your relationship with horses evolve?

Cory: I’ve been working with horses since I was about ten. I was the little girl with the horses all lined up on the shelf. My aunt and uncle had a farm with ponies and a horse and I would go out there for hours. When I was twelve, I volunteered at Gibbs Farm, which is now Stearns Homestead in Parma, Ohio. After that, I started riding my aunt’s pony, and then took lessons. Later, we bought a horse…and the rest is history.

Elizabeth: Was there a defining moment in your association with horses where you realized there was more to the relationship between horses and humans than just pure fun?

Cory: I think I had an immediate connection, even before I started riding. I have always felt very comfortable around horses. At first, I played with my aunt’s ponies…going out there to groom and take care of them. I can’t describe it or put it into words, but it was just being around them, more so than the riding, that created the connection.

Elizabeth: One of the misperceptions about equine therapy is that it’s merely a pony ride…that it’s a fun experience for the kids and nothing more. But there are also tangible physical and mental benefits associated with therapeutic riding sessions. Specifically, how does equine therapy help the rider?

Cory: One of the main physical benefits is that the movement of the horse helps build trunk strength in a child with a physical disability. I’ve seen kids be able to sit up taller and reach further. I’ve had a mom that said, “My seventeen year old son can sit up on his bed while I change his shirt, and he’s never been able to do that in his life.” She attributes his progress to riding.

For our kids on the autism spectrum, there are also psychological benefits to riding. These kids can be in an escalated state of behavior prior to getting on the horse for a variety of reasons. But once they are mounted, the swaying motion of the horse’s gait lulls them into a calmer state and allows them to focus more clearly. I have seen quite a few transformations. We support the child, but really it’s the horse and the rider that are creating that connection.

Elizabeth: The parent of a child with a disability might ask how they can be sure that equine therapy is right for their child. Is there some sort of evaluation process that occurs before kids are admitted into the program?

Cory: Yes. Initially, we do a telephone intake and ask them a series of questions to make sure that we are able to serve their needs. Then, we have the family come in, tour the barn and at this time we fit the child for a helmet. For some of our kids with sensory issues, wearing a helmet can be more overwhelming than being in the barn with a horse.

During the physical intake process, we have them ride a horse for about fifteen minutes. At the conclusion of the evaluation ride, we sit down with the family to determine if this is a beneficial activity for their child. Once that’s gone well, we invite them into a time slot for a session of nine weeks. Throughout the nine-week program, we take progress notes and make sure that were meeting and adjusting goals that were set from the beginning. The family can be looking for social interaction for their child, conquering a fear of animals, increasing trunk strength or maybe just pure recreation. Sometimes, for a child who is in therapy all week, parents find that horseback riding is a way for them to have a release, make some friends, and do something fun that other kids can do.

Elizabeth: With regard to autism, you recently built a sensory trail in the woods behind the barn, which seems to be particularly beneficial to riders on the autism spectrum suffering from sensory integration issues that make it difficult for them to understand their environment. What is a sensory trail and how does that support the equine therapy program?

Cory: The sensory trail is designed to provide riders with a horseback riding experience that also stimulates their sense of sight, hearing and touch. We take them over a wooden bridge that makes a “clippity-clop” sound when the horse walks across it. There are different types of footing such as gravel and sand that the rider can hear and feel as the horse walks. There are tactile stations that are set up along the trail with various textures to stimulate the rider’s sense of touch and keep them interacting. The sensory trail also has fun activities to intellectually challenge kids, as well as provide them with the physical benefits of being on the horse.

Elizabeth: Was there a reason for building the trail in the woods rather than putting it right next to the barn?

Cory: It’s just an area to expand and offer more. The kids benefit from being outside. So by placing the sensory trail in the woods, we combined the therapeutic riding lesson with the experience of being in nature.

Elizabeth: Even in the 1940’s, the founders of Camp saw the benefit of exposing kids to nature. Times have changed. Television, computers and video games take up a lot more free time. What do you see as some of the positive effects of nature on kids here at Camp Cheerful?

Cory: One of the biggest benefits is that we get them outside. We’re able to point out deer, geese and all sorts of wildlife when we take them on trail rides. We do scavenger hunts, where we pick up leaves and look for wildflowers. We try to do some identification of the plants and wildlife on the property and in the park nearby. But as I mentioned, because a lot of our clients are in therapy all the time, Camp provides a welcome relief from that structured environment. In a camp setting, they’re outdoors and also reaping the therapeutic benefits of riding a horse. Their trunk strength is engaged, their coordination is engaged, but they are also experiencing nature which soothes many of our riders. When we’re outside, I often ask the class to just be silent and listen. This helps them to concentrate on the swaying of the horse and the sound of their feet on the ground. This seems to relax them.

Camp also gives kids the opportunity and freedom to run around in the fresh air and wide-open spaces, play sports and participate in other physical activities. I think that our kids are seeing less and less of that these days, and it is recaptured here at Camp.

Elizabeth: What types of disabilities benefit from the therapeutic riding program?

Cory: We have kids and adults with physical disabilities such as Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy and Muscular Sclerosis. As I previously mentioned, we also have clients on the autism spectrum to varying degrees, and children with behavioral and emotional disabilities.

Elizabeth: There is a sign inside the barn that reads, “Miracles Happen Here Everyday”. Do you have a particular success story that you would like to share?

Cory: Actually, I recall one intake where I was evaluating a child who was about six years old. We had volunteers helping us, so I was able to stand back and watch the evaluation process that was underway. I was assessing the rider for balance, suitability and safety… things like that. As I was observing, I walked over and started talking with the grandmother who brought the child. I noticed she was crying. At first, I was fearful that there was something wrong. I learned that she was crying because her grandson was interacting with the volunteers and starting to talk for the first time. It was amazing! She said, “He’s never tried to form words, and he’s trying to form words right now.”

Elizabeth: What do you attribute that to?

Cory: I think that the riders are enjoying the input that they’re getting from the connection to the horse, and they’re trying to give some sort of a response back.

Elizabeth: Amazing.

Cory: I know. It is hard to put into words.

Elizabeth: I think you put it into words quite nicely. Thank you for your time. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you about the wonderful work you do here.

For more information on Achievement Centers’ Camp Cheerful and the therapeutic riding program, contact the camp office at (440) 238-6200.

The Achievement Centers for Children Camp Cheerful has been providing outdoor recreation programs for children with disabilities since 1947 and was the first camp for people with disabilities in the State of Ohio. Located on 52 acres in Strongsville, Ohio, and set amidst a picturesque valley in the Mill Stream Run Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks, the camp offers a wide variety of opportunities to get kids outside and active, including the chance to ride a horse.

Other traditional camp activities include hiking, swimming, fishing, canoeing, arts and crafts, nature study activities, games, campfire activities, music and sports. Camp Cheerful also offers a state-of-the-art, fully handicap-accessible High Ropes challenge course during camp sessions. Camp programs include Day, Residential and Weekend Respite Camps, as well as a Camp for Children with Autism.


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Connecting with Nature on Horseback – Part One

They come to the barn with burdens no child should have to bear. Some children are ill and some have been injured, while others are completely overwhelmed by family circumstances beyond their control. Many are incapacitated by mental or physical impairments that prevent them from fully experiencing the joys of childhood.

I have been a therapeutic riding volunteer for many years, working with a wide range of children, from autistic and physically handicapped riders, to kids with attention deficit and behavioral challenges. I have also worked with kids who just want to get outside and ride. No matter what brings them to the barn, it’s not long before riders begin to experience the truly transformative power of the horse/human connection.

Imagine you’re a child again and mounting a horse for the first time. For any child it takes a great deal of courage. Some of these kids are barely able to sit upright without help. Other children are bombarded with an overload of sensory stimuli that they are unable to sort out on their own. Still others are truly afraid, asked to place their trust in a horse when they haven’t been able to count on the humans in their lives, let alone a 1000-pound animal with feet the size of saucers. But, step-by-step, their fear turns to fascination and infirmity is replaced by an unseen strength that coaxes them to sit a little taller and experience the world from a new vantage point.

The sensory reinforcement of a trail ride on horseback is so powerful that children with learning disabilities often respond in ways that cannot be accomplished in any other setting. As they ride through the fields and into the woods, many of these children become keenly aware of their surroundings and are able to fully engage in the natural world all around them for the first time. They will turn to notice a tiny goldfinch perched on a thistle plant and recite the word “yellow”. They may listen to the sound of their horse’s feet on a wooden bridge and count to five. Many children will close their eyes and smile as they feel a warm breeze on their faces… all seemingly small steps, but milestones in their journey toward self-awareness, understanding and expression.

It is unclear how the horse/human relationship came to be. However, one thing is clear, horses have been helping humans for thousands of years. The partnership between man and horse has had a tremendous impact on the societal evolution of our species. While we generally think of evolution in terms of human advancement with little regard for the journey of other species, our history on earth is relatively short compared to that of the horse. Surprisingly, Equus caballus, the ancient ancestor of the modern horse, has been evolving for fifty-five million years compared to the one million years that humans have been walking the planet.

Is it possible they have lessons to teach us? Take a horseback ride along a wooded trail and you’ll know immediately that it’s a lesson about shared experience between human and horse — sharing the moment and sharing the natural world all around you.

And what is it about the nature of a horse that evokes such emotional responses in people? I’ve asked myself the same question a million times. I have worked with horses since I was a young girl and have experienced first hand their restorative abilities. I have a shelf lined with books on the subject and journals filled with notes. The incidents of horses healing humans are not isolated, they’re commonplace. And its not just horses… Ask our soldiers in the Middle East about the bonds they’ve developed with service dogs that have stood beside them despite terrible conditions. Some will tell you that these animals have even saved their lives.

South African veterinarian and researcher Johannes Odendaal has written extensively on the topic and paved the way for greater acceptance of the healing power of animals. His premise is that all humans need attention on a basic emotional level for successful social interactions. Odendaal believed that the successful use of a companion animal was most commonly found among people who were unable to connect with other humans in meaningful and fulfilling ways. His research has shown that substituting animal for human is the basis of animal therapy. Further research has proven that significant chemical changes occur in the brains of both human and animal during these interactions. In the fast-paced world we live in today, this form of therapy may become invaluable as the demographic of people who are unable (or unwilling) to communicate in “meaningful and fulfilling ways” increases to include a broader segment of the population than Odendaal ever envisioned.

Animal therapy provides interesting insights into the back-to-nature movement that is gaining momentum around the world. The authentic nature of the horse gives kids permission to respond with similar authenticity, allowing for non-judgmental companionship and the freedom to express true emotions that often transcend speech. The process of trial-and-error with a willing and animated companion is an excellent way for children to learn about appropriate behaviors, responsibility and sensitivity to others in the animal and the human world. This type of interaction is one clear example of the lessons nature can teach us about life.

It is virtually impossible for me to condense all of my thoughts on equine therapy into a single blog, so more to come at a later date.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a fun activity to get your kids outside and active, consider signing them up for riding lessons or go for a family trail ride. You may connect with nature in ways you never thought possible!

Happy Trails,

Elizabeth