Environmental Education in the Parks (Video)

As Director of Education Marijke Hecht recently penned in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Op-Ed, “Outdoor environmental education cultivates curiosity and discovery in children, the fundamental building blocks of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) literacy, and it encourages students to make science a part of everyday life.”

Starting this month, our school programs are once again kicking into gear, with kids ages three through 18 using the parks as classrooms. Through these programs, kids are learning not only in their schools but also in the parks, growing through curiosity and discovery along the way.

These programs not only equip kids from across the region with the skills to succeed in a myriad of disciplines, but they’re also FUN!

Don’t believe us? See what outdoor education means straight from the young minds out in the field:

Your support makes programs like these possible. Consider a donation to environmental education programs here!

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Celebrating Earth Day in Pittsburgh’s Parks

This week’s post is from our “Let’s Talk About Parks” series. Posted bimonthly in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “Let’s Talk About Parks” is designed to encourage exploration and discovery of Pittsburgh’s urban parks. See the complete series here.

Every year, people around the world celebrate Earth Day on April 22. It’s a time to recognize the importance of protecting our natural world, to take note of human actions that are hurting our environment and to learn about actions that each of us can take to help make our world cleaner and healthier.

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Schenley Park tree planting, 1923. Photo credit: Historic Pittsburgh Image Collections.

The first Earth Day was held April 22, 1970, but before that people did not pay as much attention to the condition of land, waterways and air. The success of a city was measured by how much its factories produced, how many businesses and jobs it had, and how fast it was growing. But over time, as cities and neighborhoods grew and trees and green spaces were replaced with buildings and parking lots and roads, people began to see that there were consequences when you didn’t pay attention to nature. They saw that rivers and streams were being polluted, smog and smoke in the air was making people sick, and species of birds and animals were starting to disappear. They saw that a place that was good for working also needed to be clean and beautiful, or else, in the end, no one would want to live there.

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Two girls plant a tree in Highland Park.

Pittsburgh is special because many years ago city and community leaders had the wisdom to set aside hundreds of acres of woodlands as parks for everyone to enjoy. Today, thousands of trees in our urban parks help clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide, they help protect our waterways by capturing rainwater that would otherwise wash into our sewer systems, and they act as home to countless species of plants and wildlife. About 15 years ago, Pittsburgh’s first Earth Day in our city parks involved dozens of volunteers planting trees on Clayton Hill in Frick Park. Even though it poured rain participants had fun and kept planting, showing that Pittsburghers will celebrate our parks in any weather.

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Will you be joining us for our annual Earth Day in Frick Park? From April 17 – 19 the park is the place to be, with free family-friendly activities like a community campfire, volunteer event, and a full day of naturalist-led hikes. Find the full schedule of events here. 

The first ever Pittsburgh Earth Day will also be taking place on April 22. With scheduled activities and events all over the city, there’s something for everyone. And be sure to swing by Market Square for the Everpower Earth Day Festival. Proceeds from the festival benefit the Parks Conservancy! See the full schedule of Pittsburgh Earth Day events here.

Love of Learning: Observations of Environmental Education

In order to be a great educator, you have to love learning.

Educators need their own sense of adventure, curiosity and excitement about their subject in order to transfer it to their students. Rachel Carson outlined the importance of this idea well with this quote:

If a child is to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder, they need the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with them the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.

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Frick Environmental Center education team members. 

At the Frick Environmental Center, we offer programming that connects children to nature in the city, and encourages them to explore and learn about their local environment.  For some students, our programs are their first experience in a wild setting and a whole new world is revealed to them. They see the relationship between themselves, their community and the environment in a new light.

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Environmental Center educators observing the local flora.

I love being the adult that introduces kids to nature. Like many of you, getting outside with my parents, scout masters and teachers led to a lifetime appreciation and commitment to the environment. Their enthusiasm about nature and the outdoors was contagious. As an educator, I want to recreate that with my students.

Earlier this month, the Parks Conservancy’s education team attended the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators conference at Lake Raystown Lodge.  It was amazing to be in such a beautiful setting, surrounded by educators from across the state that shared our passion for nature and environmental education. The conference was an opportunity to meet new people, reconnect with colleagues, share experiences and expertise, and gain new ideas for our programs. Workshops covered a wide range of topics including the value of nature play, leading an interpretive hike, and connecting with the outdoors using technology.

For me, the best workshops balanced big picture education philosophy, practical mechanics of program delivery, and the opportunity for us to participate in activities as students. In a particularly amazing nature journaling workshop, an impassioned educator stressed that nature journaling should go beyond impartial scientific observations to capture students’ experiences and feelings. For her, a successful journal entry should recreate and transport a student back to a moment in time. She provided tips on preparing students to be comfortable, capturing information through writing and drawing, and using all of our senses to make observations.

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Journaling at the PAEE conference.

 

When we put her tips into practice by going out to journal, I was reminded of the value of taking time to stop and wait for the world to reveal itself.  I was also reminded how easy it is to forget instructions and lose focus in a cold drizzle; how hard it is to sit silent and still for 10 minutes; and how awkward it can feel to share a drawing you’re not particularly proud of. It gave me a better understanding of the students I work with and an appreciation that what really matters is providing an experience.

The conference gave me an opportunity to recharge, reconnect, and revisit why I do what I do. It reaffirmed that the most important thing I can do as an educator is to share my own love of nature.

Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator

How To: Bagel Birdfeeders with the Habitat Explorers

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A Habitat Explorer from Propel Braddock Hills, bundled to his beak.

Remember that scene from A Christmas Story when the little brother, Randy, is getting wrapped head to toe like he was going ‘extended deep-sea diving’ to venture out into the snow?

Multiply that operation ten- or twenty-fold, and you’ll have an idea of what our naturalist educators accomplish when they take Habitat Explorer students out in the parks. Once bundled in puffy coats, balaclavas, and lots of animal-themed hats, these 1st graders go on an expedition in the parks to learn about the woods in winter.

Their goal? Exploring the parks woodlands and spotting birds! (And we don’t mean the Angry variety.)

Winter bird watching

Birds need to eat all day long to stay warm in the winter. They can survive without humans because they’re pros at finding seeds on plants all over Pittsburgh to keep them full. As part of our Habitat Explorers curriculum, students learn about local birds and what they eat, then make bagel birdfeeders to hang so that they can observe their feathered friends up close and personal.

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Faison students hanging their feeders.

How to: Make your own backyard feeder

In just a few steps, you can bring Pittsburgh’s resident winter birds to your backyard by making bagel birdfeeders just like our Habitat Explorers. And since the cold months are a calm time when many birds have finished their migration, learning to identify Pittsburgh’s birds in winter is the time to start. Here’s a helpful resource to get familiar with some common local birds.

A Habitat Explorer filling a container with seeds.

A Habitat Explorer filling a container with seeds.

The materials:

  • A bagel (one bagel will make two feeders)
  • An 8” piece of string for each feeder (cotton or other natural fiber are recommended because they will decompose)
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Seeds
  • A butter knife
  • A sharp knife
  • A plate or shallow container
  • The perfect branch or bush to hang your feeder

The process:

  1. Carefully cut the bagel in half. (Pro tip: It helps do this a day or more ahead of time so it gets stale. The birds don’t mind, and it makes it easier to spread the shortening!)
  2. Tie the string through the hole of the bagel half so it can hang on a tree.
  3. Put birdseed on a plate or shallow container. (No birdseed? Unsalted, flavor-less sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, millet, chopped peanuts, barley, and coarse ground corn meal also work.)
  4. Spread the shortening on the flat side of the bagel. This can be hard for small hands, so be ready to help out!
  5. Press the shortening covered side of the bagel into the seeds so they stick to the shortening.
  6. Gently shake the bagel over the plate or outside to remove excess seeds.
  7. Hang your birdfeeder near your house and watch the birds!
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Ellis students with their bagel birdfeeders

We recommend hanging your bagel birdfeeder somewhere you can see for best bird spotting. Do you have a tree near a window? Perfect! Birds like to feel secure, so choosing a feeder location in a tree or bush where birds can go to take shelter from cats, hawks and other predators is extra appealing.

Mike Cornell, Naturalist Educator with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

The Giving Tree: Commemorative Plantings

The Giving Tree: Commemorative Plantings

The greatest joy of the work I do is planting trees.

If you’re reading this blog, I doubt that I need to sell you on the ecological importance of trees. I don’t need to list all the ways that they make our lives and our planet better, you know that.

Over the past four years I have been honored to oversee the Parks Conservancy’s Commemorative Tree Planting Program in partnership with my colleague Phil Gruszka. I’ve planted trees to celebrate lives well lived and too early lost. I’ve been there for graduation ceremonies and for the exchange of vows. And what I have felt deeply from those experiences is the emotional significance trees can play in our lives — the spiritual, mythological and folkloric meaning they carry.

And most importantly, the way they make us feel.

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Family gathers in Schenley Park to celebrate the life of their loved one, Veda.

While the meanings and interpretations of a tree or tree planting are as varied as we are, they provoke a collective feeling of warmth.

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Andrew with his tree planted in Highland Park to celebrate his college graduation.

Usually when I meet a donor in the park to plant a tree we have never met face to face, but by the time we part I often get a hug. We are there to do good work and we are connected by the emotional significance of the moment and the change it will create.

In the Jewish faith it is said that trees were the first living things put on earth. Buddha attained enlightenment while seated beneath a tree. We dedicate non-religious holidays to trees all over the world. In the US you may stop to plant a tree on Arbor Day, or Dia Da Árvore in Brazil, Nationale Bloomplantdag in the Netherlands, Tag de Baumes in Germany, or Van Mahotsava in India.

We are globally united with acceptance of the significance a tree planting carries, no matter what life perspective we bring to it.

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Family mulching a tree in Schenley Park to celebrate Veda.

I am often asked what the “ceremony” in the Commemorative Tree Planting Program entails. I can tell you that every single one is different. I am always there, along with Phil (our resident arborist and Parks Management and Maintenance Director) or one of our ecologists. We plant a fairly large tree (approximately 2” caliper) that has been transplanted from a local tree farm or nursery. The type of tree and exact planting location is arranged in advance based on the donor’s wishes. Sometimes large groups come to be a part of it (I’ve seen as many as 30) and other times it is just the donor. There have been groups who want to get in and get their hands dirty and others where they stand back and enjoy the tree once it is planted. Songs have been sung, prayers read, and violins played. It really can be anything you want it to be.

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Kathleen and Phil with their work boots ready at a planting day.

I have watched grief-stricken families approach us along a slope in Schenley Park, their faces worn with loss and exhaustion. Once the tree is in the ground they all leave a little lighter. They will see this tree again and watch it live and grow. We celebrate the endeavors of life too. I have seen a sapling transform into a monument to accomplishments large and small as the last bit of dirt is thrown. People change before our eyes – filled with new gratitude, or comfort and resilience. It is one of the greatest honors of my life to be a part of that.

Any reason to celebrate is a reason to plant a tree. I visit the trees I have helped plant and believe firmly that each tree lives in the spirit in which it was planted. They are living totems to the struggles and joys of our lives. And as if that were not gift enough, they will continue to serve our community for generations to come.

Kathleen Gaines, Manager of Individual Giving

Learn more about planting a tree for a special person or occasion in your life by clicking here.

Leading and Learning with the Young Naturalists

Leading and Learning with the Young Naturalists

We could tell stories for days about the incredible crew of high school students — our first batch of Young Naturalists — that we worked with this year.

Such as when they surveyed salamanders, mastered tree identification, or worked as a team to raise a trail out of the mud.

Or when the Young Naturalists led a gaggle of under-ten-year-olds on an educational nature hike through Frick Park, becoming instant role models.

Or when one of the naturalists said she has started looking for colleges that excel in environmental studies rather than fashion.

Instead, we’ll let them tell their own stories. Already stand-outs from our High School Urban EcoStewards program, Allana, Michael, Kate, Michael, and Geneva  pioneered and excelled in our five-week Young Naturalist program. Below are their stories:

 

 

 

These young adults, and Parks Conservancy staff who worked with them along the way, will be presenting to hundreds of learners young and old at next week’s Learning Pathways Summit. Come and check them out!

Buzz… Buzz… Buzzword! Meet Our New Homewood Nature Educator

Buzz… Buzz… Buzzword! Meet Our New Homewood Nature Educator

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Parks Conservancy’s new Homewood Nature Educator, Will, and new best buddy with the Nature Play station.

Communication is key.

This doesn’t just go for the seven Pittsburgh educational non-profits working together on the new literacy program in Homewood called The Buzzword Project. It also goes for the children and their caretakers in the Homewood area who will take part in the program. And really, communication is important for caretakers not only in Homewood, but around the world.

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The driving message of The Buzzword Project is “Be Present, Be Playful, Be Proactive!” This slogan stems from the belief that talking, thinking, and putting into practice reading, writing, and vocabulary at a young age sets children up for a life full of success. The Buzzword Project is a capstone initiative of PNC’s well-known Grow Up Great program.

As a collaborator, the Parks Conservancy is setting out to deliver nature-oriented programs that promote specific vocabulary words. Words like “investigate,” “habitat,” and “outside” will be our model as we work to promote early childhood literacy with children and their caretakers. Our events, and the events hosted by each Buzzword Project partner pertaining to their topic area, will take place every first and third Saturday of the month at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Homewood. And starting February 2015, Buzzword Project partners will team up to host six-week sessions that take a more in-depth approach to modeling early childhood literacy.

Kids get up close and personal with the outdoors at last year's Nature in Your Neighborhood hike.

Kids get up close and personal with the outdoors at last year’s Nature in Your Neighborhood hike.

In addition to the Saturday library sessions, the Parks Conservancy, in collaboration with various neighborhood organizations, will be inviting community members to explore their community through Nature in Your Neighborhood hikes and activities in Homewood. Keep an eye out for upcoming hikes here!

As the Parks Conservancy’s newly hired Homewood Nature Educator, my first project was to organize the very first event of the new Buzzword program in the Homewood community. The event was based on the word “Investigation,” with a setup of five different stations: Journal Making, Nature Play, Seed Play, Dirt Exploration, and a Book Station. As the program continues, we hope to bring more and more kids and adults to these free Buzzword events.

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Though these efforts will prove to be difficult at times, I’m more than ready for the task. My goal is to carry out these efforts in the most community-oriented fashion possible. As a recent graduate of Allegheny College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a minor in VESA (Values, Ethics, and Social Action), and a strong education background through the Creek Connections and Frick Environmental Center summer programs, The Buzzword Project is right up my alley. Now employed at the Parks Conservancy, I truly enjoy working to create and implement programming in Homewood and am genuinely invested in forming a strong relationship between the Parks Conservancy and the Homewood community.

As an educator, I hope to inspire and share a love and curiosity for nature with anyone I meet. Hope to see you in Homewood!

Will Tolliver, Homewood Nature Educator and newest member of the Parks Conservancy family


One year ago: Tackling Oak Wilt in Schenley Park

Two years ago: Not Your Average Knot Garden — Riverview Park’s New Knot Garden