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

willnatureplay

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.

buzzword logo

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.

buzzwordjournal

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

 

Let’s Get Digital: City of Learning and Digital Badges

Let’s Get Digital: City of Learning and Digital Badges

Do you consider yourself a nature nerd? Do you geek out outdoors?

imageFor up-and-coming environmentalists with diverse interests, a new opportunity to build and share skill sets is about to go viral. The Sprout Fund, in collaboration with 20 organizations (including the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy) has unleashed the City of Learning initiative. Through this program, students are challenged to climb their own personal achievement ladders to gain new skills, then digitize their success.

In our hyper-connected world, young people not only have to be well-rounded, but well connected. The Sprout Fund aims to engage over 3,000 students this summer through a myriad of studies, then plug them in to digital badges as a way to quantify and share their accomplishments with teachers, college admissions, and future employers. By working through specialized curricula designed by each organization to earn badges, students can strive for cyber certifications of their achievements.

What exactly is a digital badge? Think scouting badges meets LinkedIn, explains Taiji Nelson, a Naturalist Educator here at the Parks Conservancy. Under his guidance, a team of five exceptional high school students — graduates of our High School Urban EcoSteward program — will be the pioneers not only in working towards these digital badges, but also of our Young Naturalists program. Starting in June, these Young Naturalists will spend five weeks developing expertise on park stewardship, ecology, tree identification, and much more — all while working towards badges that will show the world what they know.

Week by week, Young Naturalists will earn the following badges, embedded with data and particular to the skills that they’ve mastered:

Beginner Tree IDBeginner tree ID badge

Our budding botanists and future foresters will learn to identify the common trees of Pennsylvania by their leaves, seeds, buds, bark and branches. They do this by recording observations of 10 different native trees, learning to use field guides, attending an identification hike with a tree ID expert, and writing a field guide entry in the form of a blog.


 

Birding BasicsBirding basics badge

Naturalists will learn the basics to identify all of the birds that flit, tweet and roost in the parks. They do this by using field guides and journals to learn how to identify 10 species of birds,  hiking with a birding expert, and writing a detailed field guide entry for one species of native bird.


 

Healthy Parks, Healthy CitiesHealthy parks, healthy cities badge

Earners of this badge explore and study parks to learn about the important role of trees in forest ecosystems. They will participate in a transect-survey (studying trees along a specific path) of several forest plots and gain experience with collecting and interpreting data, use scientific tools and methods, and practice systems-thinking.


 

 

Urban EcoStewardUrban EcoSteward badge

The skills needed for this badge are generally developed long-term in our Urban EcoSteward program. To earn this badge, EcoStewards must learn how to properly use the tools needed to work in the parks. They will also master invasive plant species identification. To earn this badge, they’re required to plan and complete at least one restoration project to manage erosion, canopy loss or fragmentation, litter, and invasive species.


 

Young NaturalistYoung Naturalist badge

Earners of this badge gain experience making and recording observations in nature journals using a variety of scopes, methods and mediums. Analyzing the features of plants, animals and landscapes strengthens their ability to compare, contrast and synthesize many observations to form a conclusion. Analyzing natural change strengthens their systems thinking and ability to form assumptions and predictions.


 

Young people that participate in the City of Learning not only benefit from working with The Sprout Fund and the many civic, educational, creative, and outdoor organizations associated with this initiative, but they’ll also be connected to a larger network across the country kicking off similar digital badge programs. Through City of Learning, we hope to see that young people gaining new skills in the parks can translate that into success throughout their lives.

Lead Your Child Outside: Fun, Affordable, and Family Friendly Happenings

Few voices have resonated deeper or carried further in the crusade to encourage kids to explore and find joy in nature than Richard Louv.

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”
– Louv in Last Child in the Woods

playday

The Parks Conservancy is in the business of nature discovery. The hundreds of acres of public parkland within Pittsburgh are our classrooms; on dirt trails, in streams, and through meadows, our educators guide thousands of children to learn about the natural world around them. Last year, over 600 students from 1st through 12th grades made countless discoveries with our small but mighty team of educators in our park classrooms through our school programs.

This year, we’re joined by even more outstanding educators from the Frick Environmental Center. With these extra passionate nature lovers, we’re determined to leave no child inside. We invite you to lead your child outside and join us in enjoying our world-class outdoor spaces and battle nature deficit disorder with these family-friendly events:

Earth Day in Frick Park
“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our chidlren’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).” 
Carrying on the longstanding tradition of the Frick Environmental Center, we’re jazzed to invite the entire community out for this annual celebration of Earth Day. This two-day party is all about spending time outside in the parks. Did we mention it’s free?! Here’s what you need to know:

Community Campfire
Saturday, April 12th
6 – 9pm
Pack your favorite campfire treats (s’mores, hot dogs, veggie dogs, and mountain pies are all fair game!), and we’ll provide the fire and roasting sticks. This is an all-ages community campfire under the stars is the perfect spot to spend time with your family on a Saturday night.

Nature Walks and Hikes
Sunday, April 13th
Every hour between 11:30am – 4pm
Sign up for any number of hikes with themes like Bald Eagle Nest Building, Critters in the Litter, Nature Story Hike – The Lorax, plus many more on this full day in Frick Park led by expert naturalists. No prior registration is necessary, but arrive early to sign up for preferred hikes.

earhtdayblog

Ultimate Play Day
“If getting our kids out into nature is a search for perfection, or is one more chore, then the belief in perfection and the chore defeats the joy. It’s a good thing to learn more about nature in order to share this knowledge with children; it’s even better if the adult and child learn about nature together. And it’s a lot more fun.”
Let loose and play with the Pittsburgh Play Collaborative! We’re cooking up a day of fun, free activities in Oakland for kids and adults. Play on the Imagination Playground, run with giant cardboard soccer balls, crawl through the Lozziwurm, and of course, discover nature!

Sunday, April 27th
Schenley Plaza, Carnegie Museum of Art, and Carnegie Library
1 – 5pm

Summer Camps
“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
Pittsburgh’s parks aren’t only our children’s classrooms. They’re also the coolest spots for summer vacation. Whether your young one is three or 13, we have an age-appropriate camp to challenge their skills and creativity. Camps run on a weekly basis, and the price can’t be beat. See which camps have openings here.

wormy

PNC Carousel
“If you can’t live in the land you love, love the land you’re in.”
Bopping sea horses, humpty-backed camels, and mythical dragons make for imaginative family memories in faraway lands never forgotten. For less than the price of one video game, score your family a season pass to the PNC Carousel, valid for two adults and up to four children. The carousel is wheelchair accessible and open extended hours throughout the summer. Purchase your season pass here.

Get Outside!
“The Environmental Protection Agency now warns us that indoor air pollution is the nation’s number one environmental threat to health — and it’s from two to ten times worse than outdoor air pollution.”
Rally your family to make a long-term pledge to play outdoors. Be active, have fun — and go outside! Take the pledge with your family, organization, or neighborhood to connect to nature all year long. We think the best place to start is bringing the gang out to volunteer with us during one of our upcoming volunteer days.

See you outside!
All quotes from this blog are taken from Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Savings our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Read more about Louv and Children and Nature Network here.
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Never an Off Season

frozen dogwood

Dogwood on ice (photo by Taiji Nelson)

For many park users, the wooded trails they know and love during the spring, summer and fall are out of their minds from December to March. Long, lazy hikes seem like a distant memory. So when I tell people that I’m an environmental educator they often ask “how do you keep yourself busy in the winter?” My typical response is that I finally have a chance to get around to all of the projects and e-mails that have fallen to the bottom of my checklist.  It’s a time to regroup, catch my breath and prepare for the storm of back-to-back programs, busloads of excited students and constantly changing plans in our active seasons. To the outside world all seems quiet, but internally, the winter is by no means a time for hibernation for Pittsburgh Conservancy’s environmental educators. Plenty of planning, preparation and anticipation always preclude the crazy rush of school programs, volunteer days and summer camps.

a spice bush swallow tail butterfly cacoon

Students study a promethea moth cocoon (photo courtesy The Ellis School)

Similarly, to the unknowing eye, it could look like winter is the off-season for nature. Many woodland animals spend months storing energy as fat, before they migrate or enter torpor (a state of lowered activity and body temperature) for winter. Plants also spend much of their year storing energy in the form of sugars in their roots, stems, and buds before going dormant. On winter hikes, we tell our students that the trees around them aren’t dead, they’re waiting.

The plants and animals who stored energy weren’t just working to survive winter, they were also planning ahead to make a strong start in spring when the competition is fierce. The increase in sunlight, temperature and water in spring is like a starting gun at the beginning of a race. Right now, outside, something amazing is about to happen as the ground thaws. Plants and animals are stirring and patiently at the ready. Soon, buds will burst and eggs will hatch. A new year and life for some is about to begin.

PAEE staff shot

Our education staff hiking at the PAEE conference (photo by Taiji Nelson)

At the Parks Conservancy, our education team has also been preparing for spring. Our reach continues to grow as six new schools have signed up to participate through our K-12 programs this year. We’ll share outdoor experiences and adventures with hundreds of students from a diverse range of schools, as well as through family programs, like Earth Day and summer camps. We’ve hired and trained a passionate and talented crew of seasonal educators to use best-practices to connect children with nature through observation, exploration, inquiry and restoration. We’ve developed new programs and partnerships while making tweaks to improve our existing programs. At the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators Conference, our staff gained skills from expert naturalists and educators while sharing our own knowledge about connecting with nature in cities.

lydia plus skull

Lydia, long-time Frick Environmental Center educator, now a Naturalist Educator with the Parks Conservancy

The most exciting winter development for me was the merger of the Frick Environmental Center and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Our two organizations have been jointly running programs for the past few years, but by moving into the same office space and working side-by-side every day, I’ve gotten to know their personalities and talents. We’ve inherited an outstanding staff and a legacy of excellent programming.  When construction of the new Frick Environmental Center is completed, our staff, programs, and facilities will be the best they’ve ever been. We’re ready and waiting for this spring and beyond.

Taiji Nelson, Naturalist Educator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy