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Environmental Curriculum

Exploring a cattail marsh

This hands-on environmental program focuses on common wild plants, putting children in touch with their environment and motivating them to study science and practice conservation. It may include field walks in local natural areas, or in-house presentations and discussions. It's applicable to children of all ages and backgrounds, and the lessons are tailored to the group's educational level and prior environmental experience.

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 experiences. We include ethnobotany — traditions of plant use for food, medicine, and crafts, as well as some of the ways folk wisdom complements modern 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 the class is studying 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 use 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

Child Demonstrating Ripe and Unripe Mulberries

Watch a children's tour on The Food Network.

Listen to a children's tour on National Public Radio.

Teacher's Field Trip Checklist

  • One or more plastic bag per child-large Ziplocs or Baggies-for vegetables and herbs
  • One package of paper sandwich bags for the teacher-for mushrooms
  • One plastic container (yogurt-sized) per child-for berries of late spring, summer, and fall
  • Drinking water or juice (in hot weather)
  • Optional: Children may bring digging tools for roots in early spring and autumn
  • An extra layer of warm clothing in cold weather
  • Waterproof footwear if it has been raining heavily
  • One bound composition notebook (not loose-leaf) and Scotch tape, to make plant pressings
  • Pen and paper for note-taking
  • Rubber gloves for black walnuts and ginkgo nuts in autumn
  • Payment for instructor ó please don't forget!

Instructions to Parents on Field Trips

  • Help direct childrens attention and maintain discipline.
  • Mingle with children-don't trail behind to form a social circle.
  • Help position children so they can all see the specimens.
  • Smoking is strictly prohibited at all times, even while the group is assembling.

Phone: (914) 835-2153