On a Saturday afternoon in March, a group of Austin area kids stood on a trail at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, ribbing each other.
"Close your eyes, and listen to the woods," Stephen Brueggerhoff, educational program manager at the center, had just told them.
It took a few minutes, but the fourth, fifth and sixth graders finally quieted down.
"What do you hear?" Brueggerhoff asked.
A long silence. And then, "A bird," said one.
After trading ideas about what kind of bird it was, the questions started coming about the world they'd entered. "What kind of spider is that?" Carlos Martinez, 8, asked. "Is the ground part of Mother Nature too?" queried 13-year-old Lucas Tapia.
The hike for children from Austin chapters of Boys and Girls Clubs of America was part of a living tribute to Lady Bird Johnson, an initiative the National Park Foundation and its Honorary Chairwoman, First Lady Laura Bush, started last fall. The First Bloom initiative, guided by the Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin, intends to plant the seeds of a conservation ethic in children whose closest contact to nature might be on video screens or neighborhood playing fields.
"The hope is that kids will get outdoors and get their hands dirty while developing a sense of ownership in our national parks," said Mark Kornmann, who oversees First Bloom as the Foundation's vice president of grants and programs.
Nature for many has become a place to visit on vacations or weekends. Even these "quality time" visits that link people to the larger world have become more sporadic. Attendance at National Parks has gone down 25 percent since the late '60s, and by two thirds in recent decades at some places. Even the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park 50 miles outside Austin has not been immune.
Environmental educators and others worry that missing out on the textures, sights, smells and sounds of green landscapes makes it easier to overlook them--and to forget our role in ensuring their survival.
"If we don't get our future generations involved in nature, we could end up with no nature left," said Flo Oxley, the Wildflower Center's education and conservation director. "Nobody will care about invasive plants, the loss of plant and animal biodiversity and the impact that can have on ecosystem health and human health. Native plants could end up being seen only in exhibits, like animals in zoos, and I think that would be sad and shameful."
That concern is one reason Oxley and Brueggerhoff jumped at the chance to participate in First Bloom, which received $1 million in initial support from ARAMARK to start off in five cities this year. These environmental educators trained staff from five urban national parks this past January in techniques geared to reconnecting neighborhood children with nature and their national parks. Horticulturists, historical interpreters and other national park staff came from the LBJ National Historical Park, Battery Park in New York City, Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park, the Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area and the National Mall and George Washington Memorial Parkway in Washington, D.C.
At the Wildflower Center, they came together with representatives from their local Boys and Girls Clubs to learn how to guide children through the steps of developing a garden in each park. The training focused on creating native plant gardens from scratch. Participants plotted out the kind of outdoor living laboratory they thought would interest children. They also tested out the Wildflower Center's fourth grade nature-based curriculum, participated in nature activities they could use in their new gardens and learned about the center's resources online and onsite. The resulting gardens have been so successful that a second training session will be repeated at the Wildflower Center with at least six other national parks and their local Boys and Girls Clubs this September.
Nicolas Atwood, director of special programs at Austin's Boys and Girls Clubs of the Capital Area, said of the January training, "This place is so beautiful and so well organized, and it is connected to really great educational resources."
First Bloom trainees such as Atwood get to experience nature up close. By digging in the dirt themselves and participating in guided tours onsite, they learn firsthand the same lessons that their charges will experience.
"It's easy for us not to take into account our place in the environment," Atwood said. "You see grass everyday and don't appreciate it because it's all around you. But what kind of grass is it, and how does it help other living things in the environment?"
Such lessons can be especially rare for urban kids, who may have less green space to explore and tightly scheduled days with little time for outdoor play. Parents who aren't comfortable with what could happen outdoors, or are focused on trying to keep the bills paid and a roof over everyone's heads can also come between kids and nature. The latter situation fits many children in Boys and Girls Clubs, for instance."Their family and home life is typical of most Americans," Atwood said, "but they don't have access to the resources to do activities like nature hikes."Carlos Arguella and a few other children on the March hike help their family tend gardens. But for others, the First Bloom garden they helped put together at the LBJ National Historical Park in April was a special treat. Some, including 13-year-old Breanna McAdams, took the experience to heart."I'm planning on doing stuff at my house based on this," she said, "like planting a garden and stuff, and making the front yard green--keeping it clean.""Kids are interested, and they've always been interested in nature," Oxley said. "I think they're realizing through programming like First Bloom that it's OK to be interested, and that there are adults who will support them in that."Yet even as the youngsters got excited about preparing seeds to plant, about seeing trampled grass where a deer had rested and moth larvae bigger than their fingers, some checked out a friend's cell phone and other electronic gadgets mid-activity."They're products of their culture," Oxley said, "and our culture is very technological."That is why First Bloom has reached beyond the direct hands-on approach that has engaged 100 Boys and Girls Clubs kids and 2,000 neighborhood children who have trooped through the new park gardens this year. On Earth Day this spring, Oxley, a student from the Boys and Girls Clubs in Austin and students from three other First Bloom cities taught an interactive, online class from Florida's Everglades National Park. The lessons, also led by park rangers, were shared with thousands of students nationally."I have a real problem with media because I think that's a barrier between kids and nature," Oxley said, "but 60,000 kids could not physically go to the Everglades that day, and they did. Kids are comfortable with technology, and it serves a purpose if it is done in a way that inspires them to get out and explore their own areas."
Watch a video clip from the Earth Day segment on "Native vs. Invasive." Video courtesy Ball State University.
How well they'll handle the outdoors will likely vary. Two of the students leading the Everglades lesson took everything in stride, and two were frazzled from the lack of air conditioning, running from insects and getting excited about seeing alligators.
"This trip made me realize we have a lot of work to do if we are to help grow the next generation of stewards who will care for our national parks and for the environment," Oxley said.
The same disconnect happens even in an environmentally hip city such as Austin, Bruegerhoff noted.
"Some children who visit the center become anxious about being around butterflies. That's why it's so important, whether it's through visits to gardens or by having a garden at home, that adults help kids become involved in gardening," he said. "It allows kids to interact with nature in a safe, positive environment to better understand what life is all about."
The children who get involved may not only help future generations have an outdoor playground worth playing in, but may very well help save themselves.
"What did the pilgrims do with hyperactive kids? Well, they didn't have any because they weren't sedentary," Oxley said. "The kids were outside working right alongside the adults. Studies have shown that nature is a prescription for a number of ills: depression, obesity, ADD, hyperactivity. It's amazing what being outside can do for your spirit in so many ways."