Sunday, July 28, 2013

Seeking Help on My Current Book

I believe that the disconnect between humans and nature ranks among the most pressing and overlooked crises of our time, threatening the healthy of children and adults, and the places they live.

Countless organizations--from natural history museums to zoos to botanic gardens to environmental educators--claim to be connecting people with nature. But when I went out searching for a single, encompassing how-to guide on nature connection, I couldn't find one. As a result, following several years of research, I'm now immersed in writing a general audience book (for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Press) on this subject, researching the art and science of connecting people (and especially kids) with nature.

I know that many of you have a love of nature, as well as experience connecting others to the natural world. So I'm seeking your assistance. If you know of any great ways to forge an emotional bond between children and nearby nature, please share them with me. Perhaps you know of some recent amazing study, or an organization out there worth profiling. If so, I would be most grateful if you'd share these insights with me. Who knows, maybe your example will end up in the book together with an acknowledgement to you for your contribution!

The 21st Century is the age of crowd-sourcing. Thanks very much in advance to all of you wise owls for sharing your collective knowledge!!

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)


  1. Scott, I work in the land of EE research and I'd like to throw out two quick points of caution regarding your request:

    1. Conceptions/connections with "nature" are quite culturally specific and variable depending on the audience. I'd be apprehensive about putting out something that claims to be all-encompassing.

    2. This may be esoteric, but I'd challenge you on your assertion that humans and nature are disconnected. To the contrary, we are quite connected. For example, consider your interaction with your computer. There's a natural connection at play, deeply entangled with technology, economy, society, culture, etc.

    Isn't the issue really the nature of the connection? It's a modernist assumption that humans and nature are distinct and separate. That itself is a major part of the problem. See the anthropologist Bruno Latour's work in this regard if you want to go down this rabbit hole.

    Just some things to consider as you move forward.

  2. Scott, I assume that you're working on a general audience book about nature connection. If so, I'd leave Latour out of it.

  3. I will be working in the very near future, starting in October, through the public library in my town to run after school programs that do exactly that; take kids out into nature. A lot of kids around where I live experience nature because they live on farms or have family that live on farms, but beyond helping with the cows or riding a quad out onto the property many of them don't ever interact with the natural world in the way we're talking about. Specifically what we are going to work on with these students is identifying birds and their voices but in order to do that we'll also have to learn about the vegetation and adaptations to human constructs as well as looking at the other wildlife that those birds interact with; it's kind of amazing how many kids here haven't seen a rattlesnake even though they're all over.

    One of my goals in addition to the above is to get them to participate in nature and, if they need a reason other than for its own sake, to participate in more citizen science related activities because they live in a wonderful area for doing so (Western Kansas) and the opportunities are out there for them. Cornell's ornithology lab calls for nest watchers every spring and Audubon conducts the Christmas bird survey every year and both are volunteer fueled, but they aren't highly publicized in public schools overall. After school programs with volunteers would certainly get the word out, which is part of why I am organizing this; the other reason being that I just want even more reasons to be outdoors and teaching in a way that is "justified" by parents. If I were to just say I'm going to take kids to the park to teach them, people in our time would see that as sketchy, but if we spend some time indoors learning about nature it's a field trip when we go out to the park. Kind of an insulting situation, but I suppose people err on the side of caution more these days.

  4. First of all, I want to thank you for being and inspiration to my 4 year old. he spends half of every day talking about dinosaurs and their features.

    Secondly, I agree whole heartedly in the disconnect between humans and the natural world. We keep our kids closed up in houses away from "strangers" and other lurking dangers (and in front of a screen to keep them out of our way). When they are outside, they're on man-made jungle gyms or on freshly mowed lawns. Then, when we feel guilty for their lack of time outside the home, we schedule them for music lessons, ballet, baseball teams and nature programs.

    The neighborhood I live in borders a local park and creek. We've lived here for roughly 5 years and regularly travel the trail through the park. For the FIRST TIME in about 5 years, I saw another family walking the trail 2 days ago. THE FIRST TIME. I regularly see older adults hiking alone or with a dog, but this was the first time I saw another family... with young children using the trail. I was almost shocked when I saw them and they asked for directions to the creek.

    While nature programs through state parks, libraries and schools are all great ways to introduce children to natural landscapes, I personally feel that the push needs to come from the home. Parents need to be more comfortable guiding their children through a trail in the woods, picking up worms and holding their hand as they walk across large rocks in a creek. If you live near a park, propose plans to put in trail heads near residential areas that lead to already established park trails making it easier to access.

    Time is precious in this rushed world that we've created for ourselves, but parents can use brief periods of down time to reconnect and slow down. Meet up with a couple of other friends with kids and set the kids loose in a park. Keep them within your sight, but don't hover while they explore on their own. Pack a breakfast the night before and head out first thing in the morning to eat along the bank of a creek. We've given our kids a plot of land in out front yard dedicated to exploring. They dig holes, burry seeds, bones and gold. They flood the area with water to float leaves, sticks and rocks (they discovered on their own, that those don't float so well).

    Parents need to let go of the fear that you need to know everything and have an answer for every question you're asked. I think it's great that often times my child asks me a question and my answer quite simply is "I don't know, what do you think?". It then becomes a learning experience for the both of us. (Let them create their own theories and use the power of google later in the day to research it together)

    My son and I used to frequent a number of park-run nature programs for toddlers, until one day I considered signing him up for a program that was about $40, and I paused and asked myself "why?". Why was I shelling out $40 for someone to do what I as a mother was totally capable of doing on my own (don't get me wrong, I fully support the point of these programs and realize that the fee for many of their programs are extremely reasonably priced - especially those programs offered through state parks)? So, I said "no" to the program and picked up the courage to teach my kids about the natural world on my own.

    When nature becomes just another scheduled activity, it can easily fall off the radar. When life gets over whelming and we want to cut back on scheduled activities it's easy to say "why don't we just skip nature nuggets this season?". However, when nature becomes part of your lifestyle, its harder to lose. Instead, when life gets over whelming, we can turn to the simplicity of nature as we let go of other obligations. We can take a walk in the woods without it needing to always be a learning experience or something we HAVE to do. I hope that by making nature such a basic part of my children's lives, they won't easily forget it's wonder.

  5. Scott,

    You might want to look into Project Dragonfly ( Project Dragonfly is a program that encourages inquiry-based learning for kids. It was created by Dr. Chris Myers of Miami University (Ohio). It started with the PBS program Dragonfly TV which is hosted by kids for kids. The program promotes inquiry-based science where kids ask questions, form hypotheses, and design their own experiments to test those hypotheses.

    Recognizing that there were not enough educators who were familiar with inquiry-driven learning, Dr. Myers went on to create a program through Miami University & the Cincinnati Zoo called Earth Expeditions which took educators into the field and allowed them to experience inquiry-based learning & conservation first-hand and make a difference for conservation. Earth Expedition participants have seen & helped with cheetah conservation in Africa, parrot conservation in Peru, community education in Belize, etc.

    From the Earth Expeditions program grew two new graduate programs, which allowed school teacher and non-traditional educators, to obtain a Master's degree in Biology with an emphasis on inquiry-driven education.

    Alumni of these programs have gone on to form their own non-profits to engage people in first-hand conservation, bring first-hand science education to classroom students, and engage students in inquiry-based learning in parks and nature centers. The program has grown beyond the Cincinnati zoo, which acts as a branch campus of Miami Univ., to now include the Cleveland Zoo, the Brookfield Zoo, the Denver Zoo, and others. Classes happen on-line, where students globally interact with one another through web-based platforms, in the aforementioned zoos, and in-situ sites like Thailand, Namibia, Kenya, the Great Barrier Reef, etc.

    This program has won national science & education awards. It has received funding from the NSF (, and has, to date, engaged over 300 educators and conservationists globally.

    I am currently in my second year of pursuing my Master's degree through the Advanced Inquiry Program of Project Dragonfly. My focus is on engaging the public in inquiry-driven conservation projects to address threats to birds and their habitats. I am taking courses on-line, and have had classmates in these courses from as far away as Spain. I am also taking courses through the Cincinnati Zoo, since it is the closest zoo to me that offers this program.

    If you are interested in this program, and the impact it is having with educators, children, or other audiences let me know and I can put provide you with Dr. Myers' contact information (his e-mail address is listed on the NSF page above).

    This is a truly inspirational program, and I would encourage you to make contact with Dr. Myers' and find out what he and the folks at the Cincinnati Zoo are doing about engaging people everywhere in nature; from local inner-city youths and community members in downtown Cincinnati through urban gardening, to members of Maasai tribes protecting lions in Kenya. I think you would definitely benefit from visiting with these folks in Cincinnati and getting a tour of what they're doing locally and hearing about Project Dragonfly and other programs globally.

    Casey Tucker

  6. This comes a bit after your initial inquiry, but I would encourage you to look into nature immersion preschool programs. There are a handful across the country now. My daughter started going to Cedarsong Nature School ( for the last three years. When we moved here, despite significant exposure to the outdoors through camping, hiking, etc., she was still very hesitant.

    Cedarsong takes 2-5 year-old kids and puts them in the forest with little direction other than "explore." They go out in rain, snow or sun and the kids lead the discovery of the local ecosystem.

    For 3 years, my daughter has spent time each week immersed in nature with no desks, pencils, lesson plans...just learning to be in nature and I for one am sure that she is better off for it.

  7. Here is mine:

    The school where I work has a kitchen garden. Two words, a collection of vegetable patches, garden beds, a chicken pen and a patch of grass... but so much in all of that.

    This is a place the resembles a world so familiar to the students; their own back yards. It is also a place where a connection between the austere world of biology curriculum becomes relative, becomes recognized.

    It is a place where the kids can get dirt on their hands, a place where kids can watch the fruit of their labour grow, literally. A place cockatoos visit in loud numbers and colourful rosellas gather in groups.

    Not too long ago we sat tidily in the classroom, hands up asking questions about energy and the environment, learning curriculum standards about the sun, about plants, herbivores and carnivores; about the trophic levels that define food webs and the interactions and interdependencies that underpin the complexity of biological niches. Such dry talk, such dry learning; however animated I feel in describing it.

    The temptation is there, to stay indoors, in the classroom. But beyond the classroom these lessons take on a relevance in their reality, in their visceral truism of them being right there to find, to discover, to see, to touch. In the kitchen garden these lessons converge, a living breathing space accessible by the students that exemplifies the learning and demonstrates it to be relevant, mysterious and deep in a place that is both an outdoor classroom and an analog of their own experiences of nature; their own backyard...

    If making learning relevant is a truism that stands for good education then getting out of the classroom into such and environment is certainly that.


  8. My project combines wildlife conservation and tattoo art. Supported by the Audubon Society as part of their innovation portfolio, we've piloted programs that engage Millennials (underrepresented in conservation) in creative advocacy. They bond with one local endangered species and get real tattoos of them for their leadership. We are cultivating community that is connected to local ecology thru this art form. I'd love to help with your book since creating this bond through emotion, culture and story is exactly what we're trying to do.

    -Molly Tsongas

  9. My daughter is in the Riekes Homeschool Nature program
    (For some reason the link isn't working today.) It is a wonderful program.


    This is a great organization that holds all sorts of camps for kids. It is located in Beulah, CO (Southern part of the state). Dave VanMannen has been an integral part of the park even before it became as such. Both he and his wife are excellent resources.

  11. Also here in Jefferson County (in the public school system) there is an outdoor lab

    We also have several outward bound schools here.
    Not sure if those help or not

  12. Hi Scott,
    Your blog was passed onto me by a mutual colleague. I am interested in creating indoor environments that replicate outdoor nature-based places; and how these environments can support and sustain well-being (particularly in older adults). I have a lot of interest in how engagement with nature across the lifecourse ultimately influences one's attachment and connection with nature- and thus influences the therapeutic benefits of nature exposure. If you are interested in any information on using indoor environments to facilitate connection and meaning in individuals, let me know! I would gladly send along information.



  13. Out here in sunny California, we love Habitats Alive, a book and resources created by the California Institute for Biodiversity.

    I used the book to locate biomes within a one-hour drive of our town in Orange County and organized weekly trips for my three-year-old and our friends to try to "collect" all of them.

    Just last week we explored the (man-made) mountain lake biome of Big Bear where they had an AMAZING new outdoor classroom space that engaged a wide range of ages. This was the best execution of an outdoor classroom I've seen in this area.

  14. There is a small book called "Sharing Nature With Children", but printed in 1979 and I think last edition is ~1998... which sadly predates the infiltration of smart phones.

  15. Hi Dr. Scott! (as you are known to my 4 year old who was obsessed with Dinosaur Train) I recognize this comment is coming late in the game, but I just came across an article on the children and nature network website in which your thinking on place-based education was featured, and it caught my attention.

    I work for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (in Toronto, On), and am in a new and challenging position in which I am trying to understand what the barriers are to engaging students/schools in our education programs, and how to remove those barriers.

    This research has led me to many interesting concepts/theories, including:
    -ecological and emotional intelligence (books by Daniel Goleman), and;
    -Mindfulness Education for children, among others.

    I continue to remain perplexed by what ACTUALLY needs to happen to affect change (ie. to change behaviors, decision-making, generate sustained emotional responses to nature).

    Certainly many of the ideas put forth by the folks who have commented here are part of the equation. Creating a local connection, understanding the needs and culture of a community are likely also important. In many of our urban neighborhoods, we are looking at underprivileged, impoverished communities whose priorities are about paying bills, feeding children, finding work, not immersing their children in 'nature experiences'.

    This leads to a realization that true sustainability must include a sense of social responsibility and a recognition that we need to incorporate social systems into any attempt to foster sustainable behavior. It also reflects the predominance of the nature experience in North America as that reserved for the well-educated, affluent, upper-middle classes of society. How then do we reach a broader of society and break through social, economic and cultural barriers?

    I know this isn't a list of resources, it is more food for thought and discussion. I would be really interested in any ideas you may have in this regard.


  16. I think this a good article about connecting youth with nature and our national parks:

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