Over a year ago I talked with some fellow naturalists* about ways to make environmental education more accessible so that teachers and parents could do more with their own kids. So that whether they had outdoor space available to do similar programs or it was ways of adapting our material so adults could do similar activities indoors or limited outdoor space. This was long before I even had an inkling that I would go on to create EcoElsa. Some of the other naturalists expressed concern that if environmental education became too accessible schools would have no reason do field trips to nature centers. Then because of this nature centers would lose some of their crucial funding that they depend on to operate and maintain their facilities, pay employees, and care for educational animals. This has been something I have thought about for a long time so here are my three reasons for why it would be hard to ever replace a nature center, without the school becoming or adding on a nature center.
Pictured above are some of the many amazing naturalists I have been blessed to work with over the years you all are the best and I wish you all good luck in your endeavors!
What honestly I think is the biggest reason nature centers are hard to replace is quite frankly the kind of people who gravitate to them. Don’t get me wrong a lot of the lesson’s teachers do every day have the same content as naturalists with school groups, and many teachers teach the content as good as naturalists and maybe even teaching the subject area better. (It’s a spectrum everyone no one group is better educators than the other) However naturalists like teachers bring their passion for teaching and education to the table but also their outdoor specializations, subject focused degrees, passion for the environment, and quite frankly sometimes very resource and activity heavy programs. Their experiences and skills allows them to connect people to the environment and they have honed this for many years in addition to their teaching skills. Understanding the environment in many ways is like learning another culture with its own history, structure, system, connections, and communities within it. Especially when we get into the fun of learning scientific nomenclature, names, and definitions does it begin to feel like you are also learning a new language.
Luckily when at a nature center you have a interpreter to translate all the information into a common language so you or the students can connect better with it. Having a guide who both introduces you to the information but also does it in a fun and engaging way is important for building a connection with the outdoors and is what naturalists do. Environmental Education programs are layers of learning styles, activities, games and exploration. They take time to create in addition to learning the skills to teach them. Many traditional teachers with time and resources might be able to do similar lessons to environmental education programs. However, for many teachers these days especially in the U.S. time and resources are two things that are in short supply (among other things). Which is unfortunate but also why I am focusing on finding ways to make environmental education more accessible for them/you! So don’t let the perceived amount of work scare you away from environmental education I am here to help simplify learning the skills and recommending curriculum so you can add it into your classroom or help your class get outdoors!
In addition to environmental education employees most nature centers also have a strong community of volunteers that help support the mission of the nature center. A lot of the time they are the ones helping facilitate programs, do behind the scenes work like educational animal care, and put in the hours to make large events (and school groups) possible. Don’t get me wrong many schools have wonderful strong networks of volunteers. However the majority are usually parents and when their kids graduate from the school they move on as well. So the school is needing to get a new group of volunteers involved pretty regularly verses a lot of nature center volunteers are usually retirees and families who can be involved +15 years and are available for a wider range of hours than most other people. The people at nature centers, however is only one reason copying a nature center is hard. However, when you combine it with the other two reasons it becomes more clear why they are nearly impossible to replace without turning a school into a nature center.
Resources & Supplies
Over the years I have worked at many different kinds of environmental education facilities and one of the things that remained the same was they all had a lot of educational materials, supplies, and resources. I am talking about everything from animal bones and fur to water testing kits and binoculars or outdoor gear like skis and snowshoes. Nature centers have a lot of stuff that they use for wide ranges of programs. When you compare the educational materials nature centers and schools have there is some overlap with things like art supplies, microscopes, and books. However for a school to truly not “need” to send their students to a nature center there are a ton of education materials they would have to provide for their teachers and students. It would be expensive for a school to buy all the materials a nature center uses for programs with their students. Many nature centers get around this by getting things donated and schools do this for a lot of their supplies as well. However some of these things a school might use for only 1 week of the year and then have to store them somewhere. Nature centers on the other hand are regularly using these supplies with school groups and public programs making it easier to encourage donations and justify making room for storage.
Additionally I believe one of the most important educational resources that nature centers have are educational animals. These animals are usually on display and an attraction that draws people into the nature center because they have to see the snake, tarantula, hawk, lizard, turtle, fish, etc. They also are regularly used for educational programs to help students and other visitors learn about that particular animal or the groups/environment that animal belongs to. For this reason educational animals are also sometimes called Animal Ambassadors.
They are an engaging resource that can be used to help people feel empathy for the environmental problems many animals around the world face and what people can do to help. Teachers and schools can also have class pets but they have the added challenges of where that animal goes during the summer. Additionally animals are a lot of work. You have to make sure to properly feed and house it and they can also be expensive to continually care for. They are however an amazing resource for helping people develop an emotional connection to the world around them so I highly recommend looking into seeing if there is an animal that would be a good fit for your classroom or house! (Here is a Youtube video I did on the 5 factors for picking the right animal to help you get started finding the right animal for you and yours kids!)
The Natural Space
The final reason that many schools would have a hard time replacing a school trip to a nature center is because of their lack of natural space around or near their school that teachers could use for programs. This is honestly pretty sad to me because in the worse cases with elementary school kids this means they are missing out on play in natural areas for recess or even just a grass field. Best case scenario is teachers are just missing out on another kind of classroom that they can use to teach and connect with their kids. While I am a firm believer that anything can be taught outdoors as long as you have some lawn, a tree, the sky, and preferably a pond; even I have to admit not all schools have these things. There is only so much you can do outdoors when you don’t have them.
“I am a firm believer that anything can be taught outdoors as long as you have some lawn, a tree, the sky, and preferably a pond”
Study after study shows that kids learn better when they get to interact with something and learn it first hand. So while being outdoors to learn is especially beneficial for the natural sciences there are many other subjects and topics that benefit from a outdoor activity here and there as well. Even the smallest natural areas around nature centers provide wide ranges of habitat for different activities. Forest, prairies, mountains, desert, swamps, tidal pools, ponds, and streams to just name a few can provide a backdrop for everything from learning about ecosystems to the history of the people who lived there. When you go visit a natural space with kids there is so much potential for what you can teach and learn while there. I would rather have schools with natural space available for teachers to use every day if they wanted with their students, than students to only get a single day at a nature center per a year if even that. I think many students would have a better chance of building a lasting connection with their natural space and developing an awareness of the environment. So then they could be more invested in helping our planet from regularly spending this time outdoors. We need them to develop a connection to the environment now more than ever.
In a perfect world teachers would have the volunteers, time, resources, and natural space available (and so many other things that they need) so that they could do what nature centers do every day or even once a week. Incorporating it into all the standards they have to teach their students already. Like I said why I created EcoElsa is so that every teacher and a parent even if all they have is some lawn, a tree, the sky, and preferably a pond can do activities and play games that get kids outdoors connecting to nature.
The point of this blog post is not to bash on schools and saying that they are good but nature centers are better because it doesn’t work like that. You would be comparing apples to oranges. The point of this is showing that a nature center is a hard thing for a school to ever replace. School’s serve their purpose there is a lot of things a school does for its students that a nature center can’t do without becoming a school and vice versa. So naturalists have nothing to fear with school teachers taking their students outdoors to learn more because there is only so much a teacher on their own can do. And isn’t it better to get more kids outdoors learning irregardless? I am a big believer that any subject can be taught outdoors but I will admit that some topics within a subject are just taught better from the structure within a classroom. So instead of worrying about teachers taking away business from nature centers let’s instead work together to bring the best of both to our kids and help them learn and care about the world around them. Whether at school, home, or a nature center.
*Within the outdoor fields naturalist, interpreter, environmental educator, and outdoor educator are often used interchangeably which is what I will also be doing for this blog post; although there are some minute differences between them.
Remember if you are looking for more resources to help you connect kids to nature to check out my other blog posts as well as my Youtube videos and all more other social media accounts! Check out the links below!
Looking for MORE Resources??? Check out the links below!