Friday, October 10, 2008

Play with it

Fine, I'll admit it right now. I have serious issues with most nature centers. Some of them are great, wonderful places where visitors can learn about natural history and conservation. Some of them, however, fail in their mission to educate the general public about the natural world. I think many interpret such general themes and ideas so simply that any educational benefit is lost. Nature centers located in exquisite natural landscapes tend to be worse than the ones in urban areas because for some reason they generally lack the level of detail that is required to properly interpret the exemplary values of the landscapes that inspired them.

So, earlier this week I found myself in a fancy nature center whose mission is to interpret a dynamic, rare glade complex. Rather than exhibits on glade soils and plant communities, maybe fence lizards and Bachman's sparrows, I saw a fish tank full of bluegill, one with a stressed speckled kingsnake, a tiny tank with three collared lizards (who do not live in this glade complex or even in a 100 mile radius of the nature center). There were exhibits on Ozark mussels, even though I was in the Osage Plains. There were no exhibits on glades, on glade plants, glade hydrology, conservation of glades, threats to glades. I think the word "glade" appeared once above the collared lizard tank, without the disclaimer that the reptiles do not inhabit the chert glade upon which the nature center was perched.

For the sake of not sounding cranky, I admit there's a role for basic environmental education in urban areas. City dwellers lack the natural history interface afforded by rural settings (not agricultural-based rural, but native landscape rural), sure, so they should have a place to go to learn about phloem, seed production, backyard bird feeding, making compost, why you should leave dead trees in your yard. But unfairly, urban nature centers seem to be geared towards a certain audience with a very low education level. When I visit them, I see 2nd graders with short attention spans, children maniacally pushing buttons and flipping cards of heavy plastic not in search of an answer to the question on front of the laminated card but to make a loud "slap!" when they slam it shut. The interactive exhibits invariably fail from misuse or overuse and often have slung over the broken mechanism a handwritten "out of order" sign that hangs for weeks or months. The animals are often an afterthought, more of a place holder for real information who suffer at the hands of improper animal husbandry. Often, urban nature centers hire staff who lack scientific knowledge, but are very capable of speaking clearly...but the message is often lacking.

Of course, because we live in a country that seldom conducts sociological research, there's little research indicating the educational value of these places on today's youth. Do regular visits to urban nature centers instill an appreciation of nature unafforded by native landscapes, thereby effectively shaping political tendencies? Do kids who go to these places grow up to vote for environmentally sensitive candidates who will work arduously to preserve and protect our natural world? Who really knows, they say, but when else can a kid from St. Louis see a timber rattlesnake. She'll never step a foot on an igneous glade in the St. Francois Mountains, after all.

So, after touring a fancy new nature center that likely cost $2 million in construction alone and lacked interpretive substance, my thoughts turn to the cute little kids across the street. Collectively, they have the attention span of a flea. These are kids who would bang on animal tanks, climb the stairs over and over, slide down handrails, kids who would probably leave without understanding the function of a wetland. When they come home from school, they're pumped with sugary snacks, which quickly sends them into a frenzy, laughing and crying in the same breath. I try to play some role, I, who refuse to have children of my own because I'm selfish and I think there are too many people in the world as it is. My house is open to the kids, for the most part. We give them cheese and fruit on occasion as they play with my camera, flip through the two children's books I own, rearrange the magnets on the refrigerator, or whatever else they can find to do in my 750 sq. ft. bungalow.

I bring them little natural history items from my weekly outings to the Ozark Highlands, so they all have nice examples of fossils in Burlington limestone, Jefferson City-Cotter dolomite, lots of cool chert samples, acorns from dominant oaks, enormous sycamore leaves, abandoned snail shells. They have stellar collections of shells from the Oregon Coast, lichen samples from Montana. Oh, together we've planted zinnias, identified birds, looked at snakes, stood in the rain together while watching the water race down the driveway in rivulets. I've explained the Pleistocene to them, tried to explain to them how five Fruit Rollups on an empty stomach are to blame for their mood swings, talked about why leaves fall. But I wonder if they've ever been to the big nature center outside of Jefferson City? I don't think they've ever left Columbia or had a walk in the woods, except in my backyard.

After my visit to the fancy new nature center, I felt compelled to collect as many items as I legally could from the White River Hills and nearby Osage Plains for the kids. Post oak acorns, which grow together in groups of three. Pine cones from short leaf pines growing on Burlington limestone. Mockernut hickory nuts. I brought home a handful of bison chips for them to see, nothing more than dense prairie plants (and great kindling) and seeds. I packed a bag full of big, beautiful hedge apples (or Osage oranges, or whatever else you call the fruits of Maclura pomifera). I handed out my findings to them today. Sierra had to hold the Osage orange with two hands, leaving her bike strewn in my driveway directly behind my car. "What is it?" she asked. I told her about the trees, the fruits, some of the cultural history behind Osage oranges. "What do I do with it?" Well, I advised, "you play with it. Don't eat it." I brought a whole mess of fruits home so each kid could have three big ones. She held the beautiful green orb out in front of her, scared. "Looks like a brain, doesn't it?" I asked her. She placed it next to her pumpkin, unsure of what it really was, and grabbed her bike. I saw her little brother, 4 year old Keshon, drop his Osage orange to the ground and kick it repeatedly. He probably won't see Osage orange trees lining prairie draws anytime soon, but at least he's now seen and felt an Osage orange. Keshon pulverized his Osage orange into little fleshy sherds, exclaiming from across the street, "there's a bunch of seeds in it!"

So, I don't really know the answer. I don't know how to teach Keshon about watershed protection. He knows now why he shouldn't kill spiders or snakes, why I don't mow my yard...but I don't know how to teach his mother why she should -at the very least- recycle all of the hundreds of pounds of packaging that her food comes in. And voting? How to encourage Keshon's mother to vote for the candidate with a sound energy policy, someone who will secure more funding for the acquisition budgets for our national parks, someone who won't allow drilling in Wilderness Areas. There's a whole league of professionals whose goals include this very type of education. I send out a hearty "good luck," because it's a huge burden, that of educating the general public about the natural world. It's a job way too big for me.


Beetles in the Bush said...

I've also had my frustrations trying to teach kids about natural history, both as a father and as one who often brings bugs to schools for show-and-tell type talks. Short attention spans, the constant need for tactile stimulation, and life in a city where nature must be driven to to be experienced all conspire to drown out my voice. In all my years, however, I've learned that I can teach them nothing - really - only show them my overwhelming passion and excitement and hope it sparks something in at least some of the kids. In hearing how my daughters talk to their friends when they find a bug - pleading to save its life, or saying some interesting fact that they only could've learned from me - I know something is rubbing off. That's the best I can hope for.

Lovely, thoughtful post.

all my best - ted

Allison Vaughn said...

Thank you, Ted. I bet you have really well adjusted kids who aren't scared of bees! Excitement and passion go a long, long way...

Traveler5637 said...

Some of these early seemingly useless experiences might stick in their minds until later, when they start to make decisions about what they are actually interested in. Environmental awareness didn't kick in for me until I was in College (at Mizzou)but I remembered things I had seen at the zoo and the woodland patches in the St. Louis suburbs.