Don Torino’s Life in the Meadowlands: What Is a Nature Center?

Last week Bergen Audubon partnered with a local middle school for the annual “Great Backyard Bird Count.”  BCAS has been working with the local schools in our area on the GBBC for about 10 years now, often having much more fun than our young students ever could.

At the conclusion of the day as we always do, we recommended that the students and their familiesshould go out to a local park or nature center and count the birds and enjoy nature together, which we have always tried to have be the ultimate goal of introducing our school children to the birds and birding.

As we ended the program after a full day of pointing out Juncos, Mourning Doves and Coopers hawks we asked everyone if there were any questions. A nice young man quickly raised his hand and asked “What is a nature center?”

At first I was stunned, along with all our other volunteers. I smiled for a split second thinking or maybe hoping that maybe he was joking with this bunch of old folks that were visiting his school.  However, I could see in his face he was very serious. This very bright young man gazed at all of us (which felt like an eternity), wondering why his answer wasn’t coming more quickly.

As my jaw still uncontrollably hung open, lucky for me someone spoke up. “A nature center is a place with trails that you can walk on, it protects the trees and flowers, and makes a home for wildlife so people can enjoy them,” said Flo Rutherford, BCAS volunteer.  Our inquisitive young student listened, nodded his head kindly and thanked us for the answer.

My initial shock slowly wore off, for I knew in my heart this question could be asked in almost any school or classroom in New Jersey and many points beyond. Over the years I have been very privileged along with my BCAS colleagues to have introduced many children and families to nature over the years, but at the same time I am also acutely aware that “Nature Deficit Disorder” is rampant and the vast number  of problems that it causes our society such as attention difficulties, obesity, and higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses. Research also suggests that the nature-deficit weakens ecological literacy and stewardship of the natural world.

But this student’s question really hit home for me. I wondered if we were losing the battle. Did it really matter how much we did or were doing?  After all, there were still kids out there that had no idea of what a nature center was, never walked a leaf covered trail, saw a Robin in a nest or a Monarch on a flower. What is happening out there and where do we go from here?

In the wonderful book, “Last Child in the Woods,” author Richard Louv suggests some of the reasons we are falling behind. “The proliferation of electronic communications; poor urban planning and disappearing open space; increased street traffic; diminished importance of the natural world in public and private education; and parental fear magnified by news and entertainment media.” And I am also aware things are tough out there, families working two or three jobs, night shifts, etc. This is obviously a lot for any person or group to compete with and overcome.

Despite my initial reaction to our student’s question I also know in my heart that I have met many wonderful kids that love nature and the birds that join us at places like the Meadowlands. So it is in no way a time to be disheartened or to feellet down. Rather it is time to step it up for not only environmental groups but every one of us that care about the future of our planet.

You don’t have to be some environmental soothsayer to understand that if we don’t get young people to care about the environment then there will be no future whatsoever for endangered species, clean air or water or the preservation of natural places like our national, state or local parks. In short there will be no one to left to care enough to protect what we all love so dearly.

Here some things we can do:

Insist that your children, grandchildren and even your friends and neighbors’ children go on a nature walk . I know its tough to find the time but we can do this .We are blessed to have places like the Meadowlands and many other nature centers close to wherever you live, and many conduct guided walks for the whole family.

If the guided walks don’t meet your schedule guide one yourself. You don’t have to be Daniel Boone to pick up a trail map from your favorite natural area and take the family for a nice walk in nature. You will be glad you did.

Contact your local schools!  Ask if they have a program that teaches kids about nature and gets them outside. If not help them put one together.

Volunteer!  As much as I would like it to happen, groups like Bergen Audubon can’t be everywhere so it will be up to everyone to volunteer to get kids outside. You don’t have to be an expert, just willing to show the kids what it’s like to get outside. You could volunteer for a conservation group, school or church to get the kids outdoors.

This is up to us, no group or government agency can do it all for us. This is something we can do now, today, and your reward will be a better future for all of us and when you see the joy on a child’s face when he sees a hawk fly through the woods or a wildflower in a meadow  you will understand how import it is and always will be to get children outside.

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