Nature Is Not a Place

December 1, 2015, Department, by Jimmy O'Connor

This clever Truck Farm, which features a robust garden towed on a flatbed trailer, visits Genesee County Parks Summer Playground Program to teach children about where their food comes from.Park and recreation agencies have fantastic nature centers. Often a signature facility at a destination park, standard fare for these nature centers includes critter displays, educational exhibits, interpretive trails and outdoors-oriented programming aimed at providing all who enter a truly memorable experience. Staffed by knowledgeable naturalists and biology-minded employees, and occasionally by volunteers, nature centers and the nature-based parks and preserves in which they are located offer an oasis for adults and children alike. Most nature centers are charged with educating the public about the wonders of nature — and most do an exemplary job at this.

But, this isn’t good enough. Nature does not exist exclusively at the nature center. When we limit nature learning to a special program or trip, as we often do, we limit the opportunity to truly know nature. Nature is neither a place nor a program. A nature experience should not await just those who make their way to the nature center or who enroll in the local nature program. 

Naturally Human

Recognizing the environmental challenges that lie ahead, from warming to cooling and surge to scarcity, today’s youngsters will have serious responsibilities as adults. We have an obligation to help our next generation of environmental stewards understand the interconnectedness and importance of the natural world. Park and recreation agencies can play a critical role in educating children (and adults) about nature, which is around us at every moment. 

But first, it is important to redefine nature, if not for the dictionary itself, then certainly in casual use. A quick online search displays the following definition of nature:

The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.

I challenge that humans and human creations are not part of nature. Humans are just as interconnected to the ecosystem as anything else, relying on just as many other species, natural resources and climate patterns as any other animal on the planet. More importantly, human activity impacts more species, natural resources and climate patterns than any other animal on the planet. Without the intrinsic connection of humans to nature, we risk the very survival of our species. Accepted definitions of the word aside, separating humans from nature is a recipe for putting people before planet, when, without a healthy planet, people simply don’t exist.

Natural Lessons in Unlikely Places

As I look at my desk, I see a plastic calculator made of petroleum — a natural resource that has undeniably advanced our society. Next to it, I see my wallet (can’t sit on that all day) made of leather and I wonder if it is from the skin of a cow, deer or some other animal. Looking out the window, I see a pond that looks beautifully clear today, but that has a tendency to become muddy brown after a big rain — no doubt affected by nearby construction activity. I see ripples in the pond, presumably from a carp or bass surfacing momentarily. These are all part of nature — from the calculator to the carp. Without asking you to light incense and chant quietly (although, feel free if you wish), I invite you to look at nature not as a thing, but to accept that you and everything around you at all times are part of nature. 

As a park and recreation professional, you have the privilege of guiding others, especially children. You have a great opportunity to help instill an appreciation and curiosity for nature. It does not matter if you are not a master naturalist or have a degree in some “ology.” You probably know more than you think and likely far more than the kids in your program when it comes to nature. Help them make the connection between nature and what they do and think.

Naturally Creative Strategies

In preparation for this article, I queried NRPA Connect users for examples from agencies that are adding nature to traditionally non-nature programs and activities. After only one response, I followed up by directly contacting several agencies I thought might be doing this. I received several good examples — some of which are noted below — however, it is apparent that great opportunity exists to integrate much more nature-learning across park and recreation programs and activities.

Genesee County Parks in Flint, Michigan, delivers a Summer Playground Program at five parks. The enrichment program provides children a safe, fun place to be and includes a healthy lunch each day. Once per week, Truck Farm and Turtle Van visit each summer playground location, helping the kids connect nature to their programming activities and surroundings in the park. Truck Farm is a mobile garden, installed on the bed of a trailer. Turtle Van brings reptiles and animal education to off-site locations. Also integrated throughout the summer is For-Mar’s Nature’s Superheroes, an initiative that uses comic books and characters to teach about nature.

Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Prince Georges, Maryland, extends nature learning to its afterschool program and summer camps, including cheerleading, basketball and dance. Community gardens established at seven community centers allow participating youth to tend to the plants and   cultivate a green thumb, while augmenting the core program focus.

Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation in Charlotte, North Carolina, is planning a 2016 summer camp segment called “How Did That Get in My Lunch Box?” based on a book of the same title. Each week, camp kids will read a new page in the book and explore in-person the topic of the page. Activities such as taste-testing white and wheat bread and learning the differences between their production and nutrition will be covered in this program.

Another great idea is to incorporate nature-focused signage. Your low-flow restroom should have signage that says more than “low-flow toilet.” Put up a sign that highlights the number of gallons saved annually and how this affects the environment, such as fewer chemicals to treat the water and reduced depletion of the water source. Your recreation center garden should have signage that identifies how the garden is helping pollinators — and maybe a message about how the reader can help pollinators, too. No permeable pavement, rain garden or bioswale should be installed without clear messaging about how and why green infrastructure is beneficial to the natural environment. 

As you can imagine, there are endless opportunities to help children understand their interconnectedness with nature. Not only can this inspire admiration for the natural world, but it also highlights the benefits of responsibly caring for nature. You and everyone within your agency have an important role in helping make these connections. Your naturalists and nature centers are great, but they can’t and shouldn’t try to do it alone. Remember, Mother Nature doesn’t live at the nature center.

Jimmy O’Connor is NRPA’s Director of Conservation.