Eleven years ago, I was hired by the Conservancy as the administrator for the Board of Trustees in New York. Tacked onto the job description was management of a small but effective internship program, called The Internship Program for City Youth.
Little did I know then how important that program was going to become – not only to me personally, but also to the future of conservation itself.
I remember thinking it was an odd combination of responsibilities – on the one hand supporting a group of powerful, influential adults who were shaping the direction of one of the world’s largest conservation organizations, and on the other hand supporting a group of urban teenagers from a school called the High School for Environmental Studies — who were beginning to shape their view of the world and their place in it.
The partnership with the school was launched in 1995 to supplement the green lessons students were learning in their urban environments with real-world opportunities to become immersed in nature and exposed to career paths in conservation. The Conservancy was uniquely positioned to support this partnership through two primary assets – the many natural areas we manage across the country, and the professional naturalists and scientists we employ who use their passion and knowledge to help bring these careers to life for young people.
The World We’ll All Live In
While there were many programs dedicated to connecting youth to nature when I began my work, it was not until Richard Louv published Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder in 2005 that the work began to grow in national and international prominence.
In his book, Louv brilliantly illustrates the link between children’s well-being and exposure to nature – effectively turning the existing narrative of environmental education on its head by framing the issue in the public health arena (in addition to the long-term health of our natural resources). The book posits that our youth need nature itself as much as they need its benefits – healthy food, clean water, and fresh air.
This shift, combined with increased urbanization, an overall decline in children’s connection to nature, and a dramatic rise in the use of digital technology — are the drivers of major changes in the way conservation groups are working to not only protect natural places, but ensure the next generation connects to them, belongs to them, and ultimately works and advocates for them – for their own health and the health of our planet.
And that’s a good thing.
I believe that the way children see – or don’t see – themselves in relation to nature is going to have profound effects on the kind of world we will all live in.
Fortunately, I see signs of hope for the future everywhere.
More Good Things for Kids in Nature
As the new director of the Conservancy’s Youth Programs, people often ask me what they can do to get involved – to get their own kids out in nature, or support community and school efforts to provide opportunities to connect our children to their natural heritage. The short answer, of course, is to visit local woods, beaches, lakes and rivers — frequently and in the company of caring adult role models.
At the Conservancy, we are exploring partnerships to expand digital learning platforms for teachers and caregivers to bring nature to life for millions of youth where they live, learn and play. We are growing service learning opportunities for thousands of youth to become conservation change agents in their communities. And we are exploring pathways to careers to empower hundreds of global conservation leaders.
The Conservancy has always believed in leveraging partnerships to achieve the scale we need to address major environmental challenges. The good news is, more business, non-profit, and public sectors are joining forces to address the challenge of connecting youth to nature — while simultaneously addressing the social, financial, and emotional support many young people need to succeed as they grow into young adults.
Every Kid in a Park
Recently, President Obama launched the Every Kid in a Park Initiative, designed to provide all fourth grade students and their families with free admission to National Parks. To me, one of the best things about this program is that it provides for grants and other ways for urban families to travel from their city centers in order to experience America’s national parks. On the Children & Nature Network, Richard Louv has an excellent write up and FAQ on the program.
And this week, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell will join the YMCA and mayors in cities across the U.S. to launch a nationwide effort in 50 U.S. cities to inspire millions of urban youth to volunteer in the great outdoors. In addition to bringing together leaders from conservation, municipal, and youth development sectors, this initiative promises to support urban youth in the development of core skill sets in community service to help them succeed in whatever professional path they ultimately pursue.
Another example of the way I think things continue to change for the better is the amazing innovation we’re seeing in environmental education. Online learning and the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have an almost unlimited potential to reach anyone with curiosity about the natural world and a high-speed internet connection. Many universities are now offering free MOOCs on everything from electronics to marine science, and that number is only expected to rise.
Cornell University recently announced a new MOOC that explores why and how people come together to care for nature and cultivate community in places marked by disaster, war, poverty and environmental degradation. Called “Reclaiming Broken Places,” the 6-week course starts April 10 and will be taught by my friends Marianne E. Krasny, Professor and Director of the Civic Ecology Lab in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, and Akiima Price, an urban environmental educator whose work explores using nature as a medium to create social change in stressed communities.
A lot has changed in 11 years and I can only imagine what the next decade will bring – in terms of both challenges and opportunities for change. One thing my work has taught me is that today’s youth recognize the problems in the world, from climate change to social conflict, from animal extinctions to economic uncertainty, and they are eager to solve problems holistically and create their own change.
It’s our job — as conservationists who care about our children’s success and the future of the planet — to prepare them with knowledge, experience and connections to meet the challenges that will define their generation.