There are many large parks throughout greater New York, and they present a wide range of ecosystems and species. Yet few of us are familiar with common wild plants, their identification, natural history, food and medicinal uses, or the folklore associated with them. Because we live in an age when environmental issues are crucial, we must do more than provide our children with textbook information if we expect them to understand and appreciate the natural world and to play a responsible role in conservation.
In the field as well as in the classroom we study wild plants from various perspectives. As the students learn plant identification, we emphasize key characteristics, so everyone can recognize the various species. We include botanical and ecological concepts, and use stories and humor to make the lessons come alive. Tales come from natural and human history, as well as from my personal experience. We include ethnobotany-traditions of plant use for food, medicine, and crafts-as well as some of the ways folk wisdom complements science.
Related information from many areas of science is interwoven, and the students are encouraged to ask questions. Conservation is paramount. We distinguish between renewable and non-renewable resources, and stress the importance of managing our planet wisely. Appreciation of nature, more than fear of environmental destruction, leads us to take conservation to heart.
To reinforce the lessons, each student on a field walk collects samples of very common plants (i.e., weeds). Children may draw, create craft projects, make pressings or spore prints, take photographs, or write about what they've discovered. The class may also prepare a wild food dish. Of course, there is repeated emphasis on the poisonous nature of some species, and we often point out that nobody should ever eat any wild plant without expert supervision.
Classroom presentations complement the field walks. Here, specimens serve as a starting point for in-depth discussions of botany, health, nutrition, social sciences, the environmental movement, and any related subjects the class is studying. For example, if we are studying the rainforests, we compare them to the forests in the Northeast. If the class is studying recycling, we look at specimens of fungi and discuss the cycles of nature. I try with my questions to encourage the students to become involved and to think for themselves.
For assembly programs, we work with fresh specimens large enough for everyone to see, and present information that parallels what we cover in the field and classroom. We also bring up my well-publicized history as an urban naturalist, to project a positive role model.
Many well-informed young people watch nature shows on TV and are eager to learn more, but have no access to meaningful field experiences. We tell kids to say "no" to drugs, while denying them an environmental alternative. I've been trying fill this gap since 1982, and welcome every opportunity to make a greater difference. My goals are still to provide the finest hands-on education possible, and inspire people to learn about and care for their planet