Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Adirondack Waters: Knowing Your Local Watershed

Over the years, it has been interesting to watch the progression of environmental education and outdoor awareness. In the 1970s, pollution was the big push, and many a program was developed and promoted (remember Woodsy Owl?) to turn the tide against land, air and water pollution.

The 1980s were a bit of a down time, but by the 1990s, we had turned our attention to more global issues. Saving the rainforest, saving whales, saving cheetahs became all the rage. Kids could tell you all about jaguars, elephants and orcas, but had no idea what was in their own back yards. Sadly, this continues today.

A couple years ago I started to develop a program designed to increase students’ awareness of their local surroundings. After all, we live in the Adirondacks, one of the last “wild” areas left in the Northeast. People from around the world come here to enjoy our mountains, lakes and forests. And yet, the children who live here often know very little about these mountains.

I started the program with a quiz – a simple questionnaire to determine what the students knew about their own community. What watershed were they in? What was the name of the closest river to their school? Name three kinds of trees near their homes. Name three kinds of birds living in their back yards. What is the largest mammal in the Park? Are there any venomous snakes near their school?

Would you believe that most of the students couldn’t answer more than one or two of these questions? Admittedly, the first group I tested this program on was young – third graders. But a hundred years ago children in elementary school could easily identify their local birds and flowers. It was common knowledge.

But even a hundred years ago there was concern that students were losing touch with their natural surroundings. Anna Botsford Comstock, a native New Yorker, knew in the late 1800s that it was important to get children outside to study nature. Her now-classic book, the Handbook of Nature Study, not only demonstrated the benefits of outdoor education (increased attention spans in the classroom not the least of them), but also gave teachers the tools necessary to facilitate such lessons.

Today the buzz phrase is “Nature Deficit Disorder,” coined by Richard Louv and made popular through his bookLast Child in the Woods. About the only difference between Comstock and Louv is technology (and the fact that Louv’s book is more academic, while Comstock’s is hands-on): today children are losing touch with the outdoors because they are drawn to computers and all things electronic. Both, however, point out that nature study, outdoor awareness, environmental education – whatever you want to call it – is vital to the mental and physical well-being of children (and, eventually, adults).

Which brings us back to knowing your local watershed. It is great to be aware of global issues, knowing, for example, that the rainforests and oceans play an important role in worldwide climate. But before we heap these heavy topics on our youngsters, it is perhaps of greater value to teach them what is happening right outside their back doors. If they learn to identify their local birds and trees, flowers and insects, then they have a better appreciation for their immediate world. If they know where their drinking water comes from, they may understand better the importance of wetlands.

Who was it that said that knowledge leads to appreciation, which leads, eventually, to stewardship? Whoever it was hit the nail on the head. When we learn about what’s in our back yards, we start to care about it, and once we care, we want to take care of it. With this in mind, I encourage every parent, grandparent and teacher out there to help the children in their lives learn about their surroundings. It doesn’t have to be a scientific knowledge – merely learning to identify a chickadee from a nuthatch, coltsfoot from a dandelion, bees from flies, will start them on the path of discovery that can only result in enriching their lives and the lives of those around them.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

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