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.
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.
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.
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