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Environmental Education in the Flipped Classroom

Throughout my childhood, our family farm in Pennsylvania was not only a summer getaway from city life, but also a place to host extended family and friends. Many times we were allowed to bring classmates from school. One particular friend shared my affinity for horses and was a frequent guest. We spent long summer days playing in the creek, exploring the woods and tending to the horses and cattle on the property, all without issue until one fateful evening when she learned the truth about the origins of beef.

My brother and I with one of the calves we raised at the farm.

My brother and I with one of the calves we raised at the farm.

We were sitting down to dinner, and quite by accident my father revealed the truth…beef comes from cows…and we were having a roast. The chaos that ensued remains vivid in my memory to this day. My friend let out a scream, fled from the table and out into the wilderness, imagining that she was about to consume the calf that we had played with the summer before. In truth, the calf (of milking variety) was grazing peacefully in the neighbor’s pasture. I tried to explain, but there was no consoling her. We all watched, dumbfounded, as she ran up the steep hill behind the house and disappeared into a stand of spruce trees.

Now the terrain at the farm isn’t rugged in most places, but it is remote. If you stray too far from the road you could walk for miles and not encounter another house or human for quite awhile. The hills and hollows all begin to look the same and you could pass within a few feet of any number of wild animals and never know they were there.

After my father recovered from his shock, he simply turned to me and said, “Go find her and bring her back.”

I thought for a moment and then headed out the back door. Judging by the direction she took, I had a pretty good idea of where she was going. I wasn’t so worried about finding her. I was more concerned about what I would say once I did. It wasn’t like a 12-year old kid could do much about beef consumption, right? I climbed the hill and tracked her footsteps through the crushed clover and alfalfa that she left behind on the mountaintop hayfield. I was still contemplating my argument as I reached the summit and looked out into the second hollow. Sure enough, there she was sitting on Table Rock, a big shale formation that cropped up from the valley below, about 4 feet high and 10 feet in diameter…the perfect place to go and think things through when faced with life’s many dilemmas.

Just as I began my descent, a flash of black and white emerged from a hole underneath the rock. From my vantage point, I watched in horror as a mother skunk and her babies appeared, one-by-one, as my friend sat on top of the flat rock with her head in her hands crying. Now the problem had gone from bad to worse. I approached carefully and tried to wave a warning, but she misinterpreted my actions and prepared to run again, still clinging to her misperceptions. I inched closer. At this point, I could even smell the danger. Finally, in desperation, I yelled, “skunk” just as she was about to jump from the rock. Luckily, she saw the danger for herself and retreated until the skunk family disappeared from view.

The Need for Environmental Awareness

The story may seem comical in retrospect, but it has larger implications that mirror a current trend in today’s youth. Our children have become disconnected from nature at a time when understanding the natural world is paramount. We cannot escape from ecological truths, nor can we run headlong into the future without a clear perspective of where we are headed. In the face of ever increasing environmental challenges brought on by climate change, combined with a rapidly increasing population growth due to reach 9.6 billion people by mid-century[i] and an alarming slip in the academic standing of American students on the global stage, we need to seriously reevaluate not only what type of information our students are learning in school, but also how that information is being delivered, in order to utilize valuable class time to the students best advantage and adequately prepare them for the future.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative

In 2010, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers established a new set of educational standards that are now consistent across all fifty states and provide clear expectations in reading, writing, speaking, listening, language and mathematics. By transitioning from individual standards unique for each state to the Common Core, the new objectives “promote equity by ensuring all students, no matter where they live, are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to collaborate and compete with their peers in the United States and abroad.”[ii]

However, new challenges have emerged while attempting to raise the bar. How do teachers find enough time in the school day to deliver a 21st century curriculum within a 20th century classroom structure? The reality is…they can’t and don’t. Many schools have eliminated what they deem as non-essential subjects and concentrate only on the subject matter being assessed on standardized tests. Other districts are eliminating recess and reducing the time spent on physical education and outdoor activities…all at a time when children need environmental education, physical activity and exposure to nature the most.

No Child Left Inside Legislation

A growing body of evidence reveals that direct exposure to nature is important to a child’s intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual and physical development.[iii] Additionally, physical activity, such as outdoor play, has been linked to increases in students’ grade point averages and more efficient classroom learning, as well as positive associations with children’s physical fitness, concentration, memory, behavior, and school satisfaction.[iv]

As a result, on July 16, 2013, bipartisan bills were reintroduced to the Senate and House that would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and require states to provide environmental literacy standards and associated teacher training for students in classrooms PreK through Grade 12. Continuing education for teachers is expected to include educator resources necessary for providing high-quality environmental education, as well as ideas on how to make use of the local environment as an extension of the classroom.

However, the problem remains. How do we fit a curriculum expanded to include the objectives of the Common Core along with the NCLI environmental education requirements into an already packed school day and still remain globally competitive? The answer? Why not make use of the technology that we are already using in every other aspect of our lives?

Technology Empowers People

We must be careful not to demonize technology in our quest to expose children to the nature experiences we remember from our youth. As parents, if we are honest with ourselves, we enjoy the benefits of technology as much as our children do, and they learn from our example. Electronic devices don’t turn on by themselves. It is our responsibility to monitor the amount and type of media exposure our children receive, just as we mold other time management and social behaviors.

In truth, technology and connectivity are making lives better. Take for example the mission of Worldreader, a non-profit seeking to eradicate illiteracy among the world’s poorest people through delivering quality, culturally relevant content by way of a special app available for mobile phones that the majority of these populations already have. The premise of the Worldreader Initiative is based on considerable data demonstrating that education and literacy have the power to change lives and empower people. If it’s possible to deliver quality content to remote areas of developing countries, surely we can use the wealth of digital resources at home to bridge the gaps in our own education system.

Teaching Green in the Flipped Classroom

In my first article about the flipped classroom, I made a case for an emerging educational model where teachers assign the lecture for homework, reserving valuable class time for problem solving and hands-on learning experiences. The beauty of the flipped classroom is that it allows teachers the luxury of utilizing differentiated instruction, providing students with different ways to acquire and make sense of information and ideas. It also allows time for project-based lessons where students can apply what they know to solve authentic problems and produce real results. The flipped classroom structure dovetails nicely with an eco-friendly curriculum by allowing teachers the freedom to engage students in a variety of ways that will get them outside and active, utilizing all of their senses to interact with the environment as motivation and context for learning.

In fact, school is an excellent place to introduce nature and ecology… and I’m not just talking about an occasional experiment or an outing on Earth Day. They need to live it and make it theirs. Kids want to feel like what they do and say makes a difference. So if it’s becoming more and more difficult to get kids to nature. Why not bring nature to the kids? It might not be the exposure that we experienced. It might be even better… They can still experiment and play and get their hands dirty. The difference is that their play will take on new meaning.

Green Schools

I highly recommend watching the PBS documentary, Growing Greener Schools. The excitement of the children featured in the film left a lasting impression on me. For these kids, school is no longer four walls that close them in for the better part of the day. For them, school has spilled out of the classroom into the hallways where natural light or energy-efficient bulbs kindle a new sense of purpose. It has permeated the school roof, where solar panels help reduce energy costs and free up resources for other innovations. Learning flows out the door and into the schoolyard where open spaces (even urban spaces) can be used for outdoor exploration and experimentation. For these fortunate students, school has become a hub of innovation and collaboration…and above all a source of pride for their contribution to its ongoing success.

Edward T. McMahon who holds the Charles E. Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and Environmental Policy at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Washington, D.C. explains what makes a place worth caring about.

Place is more than just a location on a map. A sense of place is a unique collection of qualities and characteristics – visual, cultural, social, and environmental – that provide meaning to a location. A community’s unique identity also adds economic and social value. To foster distinctiveness, cities must plan for built environments and settlement patterns that are both uplifting and memorable and that foster a sense of belonging and stewardship by residents.[v]

Green schools do just that. However, as one teacher wisely cautions in the film, kids can go to school in a green building and without the tools to understand the implications of sustainability, they will have no way of connecting the building to the environment or to their daily lives. She compared it to a tree falling in the forest, that no one hears. In order to have a true cultural transformation that will make a significant ecological impact, our schools need to become models of sustainability and use the environment as a context for learning across the curriculum.

One expert in the PBS film states, “Our timeline as a country in terms of greening of schools was probably about 50 years ago. So the work that we have to do is catch up. Because, if you look at the way the world presently exists with the major issues we’re being affected by and influenced by… carbon expansion, climate warming, those kinds of things. We really should have been dealing with this several decades ago.”[vi]

Teach Green, Think Green, Live Green

The time has come for us to stop looking for answers to outdated questions and start asking new questions. Questions like… What kind of citizens do we want our children to become? And, what tools do they need to be successful when facing an uncertain future?

It has become increasingly evident that all of us must learn to live as part of earth’s ecosystems, not apart from them. We especially don’t want our children to be caught unaware or unprepared to face environmental issues that are sure to challenge them in the coming years. We want them to be innovators and collaborators that are well versed in the cycles and connections that support life on earth. I believe that using our education system as a conduit for change is the fastest and most pervasive way to improve the eco-consciousness of our country. It is also a win-win situation for our children. It will get them outside and active and will prepare them to think green in a global economy.

Food for thought…

Oh yes, speaking of food. As for my childhood friend … Fortunately, the cow incident didn’t spoil her appetite for nature. Today, she and her husband live in the country with an assortment of farm animals on their property. However, to the best of my knowledge, she remains a vegetarian to this day.

Happy Holidays!

Elizabeth


[i] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013).

World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, Highlights and Advance Tables. Working

Paper No. ESA/P/WP.228.

[ii] National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. (2010). Common Core State Standards. Washington, DC: Authors.

[iii] Kellert, S. R. (2005). Building for life: Designing and understanding the human-nature connection. Washington, DC: Island Press.

[iv] Trudeau, F., & Shephard, R.J. (2008). Physical education, school physical activity, school sports and academic performance. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 5(1), 1-12

[v] McMahon, Edward T. (2012). Character is Key to an Economically Vibrant City. The Atlantic Cities.

[vi] Wiland, H., Bell, D., (Producers & Directors). (2010). Growing Greener Schools. [DVD]. United States: PBS.

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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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Hope for a Greener America

americas_great_outdoors_progressreport

In his inaugural address, President Obama made the environment a top priority for his second term. Many were surprised by his resolve. However I wondered…was this truly a shift in government policy, or was something else at work here?

As I began to look for answers, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many eco-friendly programs have already been set into motion and are gaining momentum across the country. During the election, we were bombarded with partisan battles about all sorts of environmental issues, including the future of fossil fuels, pipelines, and the EPA. Some even labeled climate change a hoax designed to deceive American citizens with false beliefs and interests. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Fortunately, the majority of the American people are genuinely concerned about protecting the environment and many had already begun green projects and programs at the grassroots level. But if that’s the case, why aren’t we hearing more about them?

Well, the answer is… now we are, and Obama’s reelection is part of that clarion call. There’s a new enthusiasm about the environment and it’s energizing both the people and the politicians. Citizens are finally standing up to defend the importance of ecological stewardship and their proactive efforts are dovetailing nicely with several “participant-friendly” federal programs.

America’s Great Outdoors

AGO-report-300President Obama is famous for his grassroots approach to change. In fact, many will agree that this strategy not only was the key to his election success in 2008, but also made him a two-term president in even greater numbers this past year. So it should be no surprise that in April of 2010, President Obama had already introduced America’s Great Outdoors (AGO), a citizen-directed initiative aimed at reigniting our historic commitment to conserving and enjoying the magnificent natural heritage that has helped to shape our nation.

By February of 2011, a report was completed by various governmental agencies in consultation with the American people. The report was a culmination of the comments and conversations of more than 150,000 citizens in communities across the country. Citizens including farmers, ranchers, hunters, anglers, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, parents, teachers, and young people, along with conservation organizations, state, local, and tribal governments, historic preservation groups, faith communities, and businesses shared their ideas on how to connect people with America’s natural and cultural treasures, and also ways to build on the conservation successes already implemented in their areas.

The results indicated that the American people want to continue to enjoy their outdoor heritage and preserve it for their children and grandchildren. AGO strives to empower all Americans to share in the responsibility to conserve, restore and provide better access to our lands and waters, and reconnect Americans to natural landscapes and cultural heritage sites, leaving a healthy outdoor legacy for future generations.

This is not the first time that a president has harnessed the power of American citizens to protect the environment. From 1933 to 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt championed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the United States, one of the most popular of his New Deal programs. The CCC was a public work relief program that not only provided unskilled manual labor jobs in conservation and the development of natural resources in rural lands owned by the  government, but also led to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors. President Obama’s AGO initiative builds on Roosevelt’s legacy of stewardship and reaffirms American’s commitment to conserving the extraordinarily diverse lands and waters that nourish and support us.

Let’s Move Outside!

Lets Move OutsideFirst Lady Michelle Obama introduced Let’s Move Outside! a couple of months after the president’s AGO initiative and this program plays a key support role in advancing his recreation and conservation agenda. In order to keep our country viable in the 21st century and beyond, we must also pay attention the health of our human ecosystems, especially the health of our children. Let’s Move Outside! is the outdoor activity component to Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, aimed at ending childhood obesity through promoting healthy eating habits and active lifestyles for American children. Let’s Move Outside! links parents to parks and trails across the country and offers families helpful suggestions on ways to develop a more active lifestyle.

Kids need nutritious meals and vigorous exercise to stay healthy and fit. Unfortunately, times have changed and children spend more and more time on inside activities like TV, video games and the computer. Parents are busier than ever before, and as a result, families eat fewer well-balanced meals and kids snack in between. According to the Let’s Move! website, “Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese… If we don’t solve this problem, one third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. Many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma.” 

However, habits that have developed over the past several decades will not be easily undone. To effectively correct the imbalances in our daily lives, there needs to be a frank dialogue on the repercussions of our lifestyle choices. We must teach children that eating is an important part of life and has the greatest impact on the world’s resources and on our personal health. We can begin by providing them with healthy lunch choices at school to prove that we are serious about making significant changes to our current system. We can also begin to teach them how to make healthy choices for themselves.

Ecological awareness – understanding the network of life’s systems and cycles – is a key factor in helping people to adopt more sustainable habits, including eating. To be ecologically “literate” requires reconnecting people with the human ecosystem– it requires relearning how to live within the context of our own human habitats and communities. In short, it requires education.

U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools

department-of-education-Green-Ribbon-SchoolsAll living things change their environment in some form and the life cycles of all species are continually evolving. However, humans have been endowed with the gift of reason. Therefore, as the human influence on the planet becomes more pervasive, we cannot escape the responsibility of using our intellect to manage the natural spaces and species and mitigate the effects of increased human involvement. Unfortunately, we are changing the earth faster than the rate of comprehension of this change and thus, the need for environmental education has never been more important than it is today.

President Roosevelt once noted, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education…” The same can be said about the safeguard of humanity and essentially all life on earth.

Despite clashes on Capitol Hill about the validity and severity of climate change, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes that education plays a vital role in the sustainability movement. As a result, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan initiated the annual U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools award in 2011. According to the U.S. Department of Education website, “The Green Ribbon Schools recognition award honors schools that are exemplary in reducing environmental impact and costs; improving the health and wellness of students and staff; and providing effective environmental and sustainability education, which incorporates STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), civic skills and green career pathways. The recognition award is part of a larger U.S. Department of Education effort to identify and disseminate knowledge about practices that are proven to result in improved student engagement, higher academic achievement and graduation rates, and workforce preparedness, as well as a government wide goal of increasing energy independence and economic security.”

The results were impressive with over 350 schools completing the application. The winning schools were those that made the greatest progress in three areas, including reduced environmental impact, improved health and effective environmental education.  The first ever 2012 honorees hailed from 78 school systems in 28 states, the District of Columbia and the Bureau of Indian Education and while each school went about “going green” in their own way, they all serve as shining examples for other schools to follow. It’s a great start, so spread the word and get involved!

In Closing

As citizens of our great democracy, we are always quick to defend our rights, but much slower to accept our responsibilities. Oftentimes, we may doubt whether our individual efforts can make a difference, when in fact it’s the only thing that can truly bring about lasting change. We cannot solely rely on the people we vote into office to safeguard the things we hold dear. Each of us should understand the ecological impact of our actions and become active participants in shaping the programs and policies that affect our country. This will ensure that the changes we desire are ideals that will continue to sustain us as a nation and endure for generations to come.

American history has proven that there’s strength in numbers. Let’s move forward together…

Elizabeth


 


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We Cannot Allow Newtown to Become Anytown

In the land of the free and the home of the brave, how can we expect to create innovative new learning environments for our students and prepare them to be meaningful contributors to the 21st century when they are locked in their schools with armed guards standing watch at the doors? How can this possibly be conducive to learning and creative thought? This is America – leader of the free world – and our children deserve better. We need to find a way to make it so.

First and foremost, my condolences go out to all of the families who have lost loved ones in Newtown and in other cities around the country where mass shootings have occurred this past year. No citizen of this nation (or any country for that matter) should ever have to experience such grief and loss. However, in reality, there are many school systems in the United States where fear, violence and even death are a regular part of daily life for students. Unfortunately, we don’t pay attention until something terrible happens en masse in a place where we are least expecting it.

As parents, we are all concerned about keeping our children safe. Speaking from personal experience, the threat of strangers was my greatest fear when my children were young. In reality, though, it’s not an outsider but rather people known to the child, family or community who cause most incidents of violence. Such was the case in Newtown, Connecticut and other cities where mass killings have occurred. Worse still, many of these shooting incidents are students turning on fellow students in their own communities — an ominous warning of a growing malady among our youth that, if left untreated, will surely grow to epidemic proportions.

To be clear, this is not a blog about gun control, mental illness or major breaches of school security. While they are important topics, they only address the symptoms, not cure the ailment.

A convergence of factors has led us to where we are today. Increased populations place people in close proximity to one another in ever expanding urban areas. Poverty also plays a role. Children living in poverty are far more vulnerable to violence than other segments of the population. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, in 2010, 16.4 million children under the age of 18, or 22.0 percent, were considered poor. That’s almost a quarter of our youth who are affected.

However, as we know, school violence is not confined to disadvantaged populations. In more affluent communities, tightly packed schedules and high expectations have pushed some kids to the breaking point. Standardized tests and school rankings pit students against one another in an unhealthy academic competition. Emotional and behavioral difficulties are on the rise and affect many aspects of children’s lives, including achievement in school, relationships with family and friends, and the risk of alcohol or substance abuse.

Further, kids’ lives are becoming more and more controlled. They are being confined to smaller spaces and tighter time frames, from car seats, strollers and the interior of the family SUV, to highly choreographed schedules that leave little time for free play and quiet reflection. And the stress of it all is beginning to manifest itself in unhealthy ways. Add to this mix easy access to dangerous weapons and the glamorization of violence and the results should be no surprise to anyone.

But does the pathology run deeper still? Alfie Kohn, author of What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies, questions the basic structure of our American high schools and the way our students are being educated. He quotes Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University who bases the following evaluation on what psychologists have identified as key human needs. She argues that

“Many well-known adolescent difficulties are not intrinsic to the teenage years but are related to the mismatch between adolescents’ developmental needs and the kinds of experiences most junior high and high schools provide. When students need close affiliation, they experience large depersonalized schools; when they need to develop autonomy, they experience few opportunities for choice and punitive approaches to discipline; when they need expansive cognitive challenges and opportunities to demonstrate their competence, they experience work focused largely on the memorization of facts…”

Kohn believes that American high schools not only fail to meet the individual needs of students, but often make a mockery of them. How do we expect our children to become leaders when they are afraid to make mistakes and are forced to follow a standardized plan that may or may not address their individual strengths and weaknesses?

In short, kids want to feel like what they do and say matters. They also want to have the ability and the opportunity to make competent decisions about things that affect their lives, and all our lives. Ultimately, they want to feel connected to others… And, when kids feel like they belong, they are far more likely to want to nurture those connections, whether it is bonds formed with other students, teachers, their community or the world at large.

This is where I believe including environmental education in school curricula has the potential to make a significant difference in engaging students in their own learning processes and encouraging them to start taking responsibility for their personal acquisition of knowledge. Ultimately, it’s not about the grade or the test score or the class ranking. It’s what you know – that incredible sense of entitlement, and responsibility, when you gather into yourself the vast reality of this world. Needless to say, acquiring that knowledge is powerful and personally transformative.

Environment-based education uses human habitats and natural spaces as context across various disciplines of study. The program is characterized by kids exploring the local community and natural surroundings, with hands-on experiences of environmental discovery and problem solving, and learning that accommodates students’ individual skills and abilities. Research shows that this approach delivers many benefits to students. Results show that students tend to improve their overall GPA’s and stay in school longer. They develop critical thinking skills, experience improved motivation, more responsible behavior, and a sense of environmental stewardship. Students also show more cooperation and improved conflict resolution skills that will go a long way toward eliminating personal frustrations that can result in violent acts such as the terrible shootings that continue to plague our country.

Violence is everywhere. More locks and more guns are not going to make it go away. We need to find effective ways to connect with each other and the world around us in order to heal our social ills. It is my sincere wish that 2013 will see real and meaningful change in this regard… and that we will make the health and welfare of our children our #1 priority. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Elizabeth

Post script: In the aftermath of the unfathomable tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school, a platoon of golden retrievers – some of nature’s finest – were called in to ease the pain of a wounded community. Their soft fur, wet noses and unconditional love eased the fears of frightened children and warmed the hearts of many… Living proof that we are truly all in this together!



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A Primer for Environmental Education

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2005)

In researching the benefits of grade school environmental education for the new children’s entertainment series we are working on, I ran across an excellent resource entitled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. This is an important book and I’d like to give you a brief overview of Louv’s innovative thinking on how humanity’s relationship with nature can be improved by helping our kids to build meaningful relationships with the outdoors.

Nature Deficit Disorder Defined

Last Child in the Woods contends that children need exposure to nature to ensure the healthy development of body and mind. Trends in society such as the loss of easy access to natural areas, fear of perceived dangers in unstructured play, and community restrictions, combined with increased attachment to indoor activities such as television, computers and video games, have led to a separation of children from nature that is having detrimental effects on kids’ physical, emotional and cognitive development.

Richard Louv coined the phrase, Nature Deficit Disorder, to describe the phenomenon. Although he admits that it is not a medical diagnosis, Louv defines the disorder as “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” Louv offers plenty of studies and anecdotal evidence collected over a 10-year period to support his theory. He writes,

“Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the other unseen side of that confusion.”

Louv divides the book into seven sections and walks us through the evolution of the problem, why it matters and how we can get kids back to nature in order to ensure their physical and mental health. All the while, he weaves in personal recollections from his own childhood, which had me reminiscing about my own.

How Did We Get Here?

Humans are a curious lot. We are always pushing the boundaries of what is known, to discover what is possible. Attachment to the land has historically held special appeal for Americans, starting with what Louv calls the “first frontier”, where the availability of free land encouraged the advancement of citizenry westward that not only created our country and the boundaries of the land that it encompasses, but also defined the venturesome spirit of the people who claimed it as their own.

Once the boundaries were set, a “second frontier” emerged that was more a movement of priorities and values, than physical motion. In rural areas, the farm defined our connection to the land and created family legacies that have lasted for generations. In urban areas, land was set aside for public parks to ensure easy access for city residents. This era also romanticized nature and saw the creation of national parks that preserved the most unique and beautiful natural areas of the country for all people to explore and enjoy.

Currently, a “third frontier” is emerging in American culture. Unfortunately, our cultural values are shifting away from a personal connection with natural places to a more intellectualized relationship. Louv defines the events that are shaping the current trends as follows:

“Not yet fully formed or explored, this new frontier is characterized by at least five trends: a severance of the public and private mind from our food’s origins; a disappearing line between machines, humans, and other animals; an increasingly intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals; the invasion of our cities by wild animals (even as urban-suburban designers replace wildness with synthetic nature); and the rise of a new kind of suburban form.”

This new era is also typified by the reduction of primary experiences…that which we can perceive through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Unstructured play in the natural world is being replaced by passive experiences delivered through an ever-increasing selection of media. This shift matters more than we realize. Louv quotes Robin Moore, a professor at North Carolina State University who directs a research and design program that advocates nature play in the daily lives of children. She states,

“Children live through their senses. Sensory experiences link the child’s exterior world with their interior, hidden, affective world. Since the natural environment is the principal source of sensory stimulation, freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment through the senses in their own space and time is essential for healthy development of an interior life… This type of self-activated, autonomous interaction is what we call free play. Individual children test themselves by interacting with their environment, activating their potential and reconstructing human culture. The content of the environment is a critical factor in this process. A rich, open environment will continuously present alternative choices for creative engagement. A rigid, bland environment will limit healthy growth and development of the individual or the group.”

Louv adds that our children are being contained in smaller and smaller spaces and live tightly structured lives. Car seats, strollers, even the interior of the family SUV is becoming one of the standard “containers” in which children are exposed to nature. And yet, they need to explore nature and utilize all of their senses…not just sight…to make sense of the world around them and eventually their place in it. They need to stretch their legs (and their minds) or risk becoming depersonalized and detached from real life. Even school recess has been reduced or eliminated due to time constraints, curricular demands and liability concerns. Louv writes, “the detachment of education from the physical world not only coincided with the dramatic rise in life-threatening childhood obesity, but also with a growing body of evidence that links physical exercise and experience in nature to mental acuity and concentration.”

Why Don’t Kids Play Outside Anymore?

I find it paradoxical that parents who experienced such freedom in their own childhood would keep their own children so tightly controlled. However, closer examination reveals structural, cultural and societal changes that have significantly altered how children spend their free time. These changes play a direct role in separating them from nature and limiting the time and space available for them to engage in unstructured play. Louv explains these changes as follows:

Structural Changes to the Family Unit

Today, more families have both parents working outside the home than in any other time in the history of our nation. Daycare and after school care have become a necessity for many families. With so much time spent away from their children each day, parents feel compelled to make the most of the remaining hours by filling it with what they believe to be meaningful and results-driven activities. While music lessons, team practices and service obligations are all valuable childhood experiences, they leave little time for much else.

Cultural Changes

In addition, families are surrounded by a culture of media. Many times, when children do have time between the classroom, after school activities and bedtime, they often fill it with television, computer activities and video games. Parents aren’t immune to the lure of media either. Passive activities in front of a video screen take away from time spent outside experiencing nature. Also, modern networks of communication connect parents with other parents, enabling them to compare parenting styles, thus raising expectations of their own children’s achievement and involvement in extracurricular activities.

Societal Changes

Increased communication has also led parents to believe the world is a more dangerous place than it once was. This contagion of fearfulness has been a significant factor in an increase in parents’ control of their children’s outdoor activities. Twenty-four hour news cycles and TV crime shows have created a phobia of “stranger danger,” and also a fear of crime, traffic hazards and peer-related phenomena such as bullying and drugs. The obvious consequence for parents of young children obsessed with stranger danger is to either keep kids safe at home or make sure they’re in highly structured situations.

Institutional Changes

The boundaries of childhood are shrinking. Rural living has lost its appeal and in urban settings people have inevitably become more and more removed from the natural world. Even in the suburbs, over the past few decades, populations have trended toward highly planned developments. Consequently, the natural world can be off-limits or hard to reach. Planned neighborhoods with manicured green spaces have strict rules of conduct to reduce liability and the destruction of property. Playgrounds, parks and wild spaces can be miles away and parents are much more willing to drive kids to a soccer game or a music lesson than to an unstructured and unsupervised romp in a park. If we can’t send them out the backdoor to play, how can we restore this vital connection?

“The Nature-Child Reunion”

What Louv suggests is not only the evolution of the nature-child relationship, but also the parent-child relationship as well. Louv suggests that parents simply spend time with their kids in nature. Though they may not be able to recreate their own childhood memories of nature play, they should come to understand that their children can indeed readily connect with nature in a meaningful way. And, most parents will benefit from this connection too. He recommends allowing kids to explore wild places with controlled risk, “almost out of earshot, but never out of sight.” While this may not be the dawn to dusk adventures of past generations, it will provide kids with firsthand experiences, partial solitude and valuable exposure to the natural world.

Today’s parents are becoming better educated and informed through a wide variety of media sources. Louv believes that if the back-to-nature movement is marketed as an integral part of a child’s education and a valuable resource for mental health, appreciation of nature will make a comeback. However, Louv cautions that it won’t happen automatically, but will require the help of environmentalists, teachers and community organizers to make it happen.

Environmental Education

Nature-based environments are not only known to facilitate psychological healing, but also have been found to aid learning across a wide range of curricula. Louv cites many studies that outdoor learning experiences increase mastery in science, social studies, language arts and math. Gains were also realized on standardized tests and overall grade point averages. He adds that students in nature-based programs also had better attendance and behavior than in traditional classrooms. One such study submitted to the California Department of Education found a “27 percent increase in measured mastery of science concepts; enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills; gains in self-esteem, problem solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior.”

Slowly, some innovative teachers with the support of eco friendly parents and open-minded school systems are realizing the benefits of hands-on education that makes learning “immediate and personal”. Schools are beginning to utilize the school grounds as an extension of their classrooms. Two studies conducted in Canada, “Gaining Ground” and “Grounds for Action”, found:

“Children who experience school grounds with diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another, and more creative. The greening of school grounds resulted in increased involvement by adults and members of the nearby community.”

In order to minimize the financial impact of these new programs, schools are also partnering with environmental organizations and local wildlife preserves. Louv believes that this is a win-win proposition for both the local schools and also the preservation efforts of affiliated associations.

The “Fourth Frontier”

Richard Louv’s “fourth frontier” calls for us to reexamine our values and priorities of urban planning to make room for the restorative cycles of nature within our communities. He also calls for changes to the laws that govern landowners, parks and other public lands to decriminalize natural play in these areas. He writes:

“As long as cities continue to overdevelop housing tracts and underdeveloped parks and other sites for natural play, our regional parks and beaches will be crushed by demand, necessitating ever more stringent enforcement.”

He offers many suggestions for humans and animals to coexist in urban areas and ways to restore nature not only for our children’s sake, but for nature’s sake as well. He envisions entire cities transformed into natural habitats in order to satisfy our need for biophilia, a human’s innate desire to connect with other forms of life. Louv cites many examples of green urbanism that have been adopted in European cities and imagines American cites similarly transformed through thoughtful planning, innovative design and the ecological education of its citizens. He writes:

“Preserving islands of wild land – parks and preserves – in urban areas is not enough, according to current ecological theory. Instead, a healthy urban environment requires natural corridors for movement and genetic diversity. One can imagine such theory applied to entire urban regions, with natural corridors for wildlife extending deep into urban territory and the urban psyche, creating an entirely different environment in which children would grow up and adults could grow old – where the nature deficit is replaced by natural abundance.”

A Personal Connection

Ultimately, Richard Louv believes that nature is a “spiritual necessity” for healthy childhood development. He makes a convincing argument for “faith-based environmentalism”, citing a strong connection between nature and religion that spans the doctrines that divide us. He quotes Paul Gorman, founder and director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, who believes that:

“The purpose of creation really is to bring us – children and all of us – closer to the creator. As a parent, you don’t encourage children to experience nature because it’s pretty, but because your children are exposed to something larger and longer standing than their immediate human existence.”

Louv looks to a future where appreciation of nature is firmly rooted in our daily lives, our education programs and our value system as a society. He advocates that we encourage our children to develop a connection with nature that is active, personal and ongoing. He believes that this will produce greater appreciation, even reverence, for the natural world that transcends current environmentalism, and will create future generations that are healthier, happier and have an increased sense of commitment to preserving and sustaining our awe-inspiring planet.

I highly recommend Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. It is the bible of the back-to-nature movement and validation of my personal beliefs about the importance of nature in childhood, both from my own personal adventures as a child, and also my experiences raising four children in a completely new era.