Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Exercise is good for kids...

Whenever I visit a school I try to learn as much as possible, always making it a point to ask students how they spend their day. I'm interested for a few reasons, including discovering how much physical activity they get. While my "research" is anecdotal, there's plenty of evidence (besides our waistlines) that shows we get less exercise than we used to.

d while
we might "know" exercise is good for our bodies, and we may even "know" exercise improves our mood,
there's mounting evidence showing exercise as being good for brains, especially young, developing brains.
So, when I see kids, parents and teachers push back against
reducing gym time,
cutting recess,
narrowing curriculums,
increasing homework loads, I say keep pushing.

Less can be more when it means more time for play and getting our heart rates up. Less homework, less rote learning and fewer organized activities can lead to healthier and more creative kids, who also happen to test better.

Consider checking out
Spark, a book on the science of exercise and the brain. Dr. Ratey's blog

See you outside,

P.D. A recent article in Mother Nature Network about a study of high school teens who do better walking to school here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Recent Interview and A Recent Review/Recommendation

A two part interview with Little Green Pen's Michelle Schaub with views on environmental education: http://www.littlegreenpen.blogspot.com/

And Sarah Davies of Unplug your Kids, wrote a review of one of the books I had mailed to her a few months ago:


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Education System: creating cars or teaching kids?

I crashed the ISACS (Independent Schools Association of the Central States) conference the other day. Yes, I'm getting too old to sneak into events. I didn't do it for the rubber chicken served at lunch, but to listen to Sir Ken Robinson.

A world-renowned expert in creativity, Sir Ken entertains. After the lunch and a follow up session with him, my cheeks hurt.

Google him and watch one of his videos at the TED conference. Or visit his website: http://www.sirkenrobinson.com/

If you need more information on his thoughts, here are a few pieces I take from Ken:

Things are changing fast and the pace of change is accelerating. In the next 50 years everything must and will change, i.e. from technology to energy use. If the entire world lived like the USA, the earth could support 1.2B people. At issue is the education system in the USA. It's not set up to enable kids to flourish, to follow their passions and to become leaders of the revolution we're in.

Our politicians mean well with programs like Leave No Child Behind and Race to the Top. Rightly, they claim "our businesses need kids that can read and write." Talk with business leaders and, yes, reading and writing is nice, but they also need people that can work on teams, think critically and innovate.

Our school system is based on an industrial model. Like an assembly line, we fill up the brains of children (mostly just one side of the brain) with information as efficiently as possible and move them on. Yet, kids are not cars, but individuals. Why not celebrate diversity and encourage them to find and follow their passions? Kids are restless and curious by nature. The goal is to set up conditions that keep them restless and curious, Why not work to foster creativity, rather than penalize it?

Ken offers ideas to teach creatively and reward creativity, often found happening at schools he visits. In fact, there is a growing backlash against this industrial system. More and more people (in and out of the system) understand rote memorization is over-rated and school can and should be relevant. Additionally, Ken doesn't blame teachers and schools, but does claim they have more leeway than they think. Best of all, Ken's wit keeps it all far lighter than I'm able in a blog posting :)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Boston College Alumni Profile: A Conversation with Environmental Educator and Children's Author, Tim Magner

Here's the unedited and full-length version of last month's interview in a Boston College newsletter for graduates.

Boston College Alumni Profile: A Conversation with Environmental Educator and Children's Author, Tim Magner
By Timothy Sullivan

BCEEAN Newsletter Editor and executive committee member, Tim Sullivan, posed the following questions to environmental educator and children's author Tim Magner to discuss his views on environmental education today.

What drew you to the field?
First and foremost, it’s about spending time with children. I discovered the joy of being with kids while tutoring in high school. After graduating BC as a history major, teaching kids was my full time gig for a few years- from camp counselor, to golf coach to ski instructor. After a stint with EMC Corporation and bored with the rat race, I spent a couple years studying the environment and education. Writing for kids is an opportunity to fill a need and an excuse to be with more kids, more often.

What do you see as the major needs for environmental education?
My motto is growing green minds. The first part is about giving kids the opportunity to be kids. That means unstructured outdoor activity- time to get their feet wet and their hands dirty. It means giving kids a chance to fall- and to fall in love with, to bond with, the natural world.

So, I work to inspire kids of all ages to play. Opportunities to wander and to wonder, to explore and investigate ought to remain a part of childhood. Not only for their health and the skills it develops, but also for their happiness. No matter the technology, electronics will never engage the senses in a way nature does.

And the second part of growing green minds?
Is about kids growing up understanding how nature works. And I don’t necessarily mean the scientific stuff like the regulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or memorizing the periodic table of elements. Rather, I refer to the concepts behind nature’s successful evolution over the last billion years or so, e.g. nature cycles all its own nutrients, runs on current sun energy, rewards cooperation over competition, thrives on diversity. Nature teaches us everything we need to know. It’s already solved all the problems we face. For example, it’s easy to have a conversation with nine-year olds about worms and composting while demonstrating how waste for one is food for another. In nature there is no such thing as worthless waste, so when we recycle or compost, we mimic nature.

What is the best approach to Environmental Education?
I’ve been lucky enough to see programs across the country and they run the gamut, from head-in-the-sand tactics to the scare-the-hell-out-of ‘em approach. I argue- even if you claim to care nothing about the air, water or soil- education ought to start hands-on, local and relevant to every day life. Our first Parent and Teacher Guides contain nothing but activities that engage nature nearby, offering ways to learn where we live, who lives with us and how it works.

Environmental education isn’t just for science, just for Earth Day or only when we have time to squeeze it in. Learning about the place we live can be woven throughout the curriculum and used to teach reading, writing, math and social studies.

Kids can care about the bog down the street or a grove of trees in the schoolyard, but can a child really know a jaguar in the rainforest? Generally, we go abstract too early. Put away the cookie-cutter rainforest lessons and engage the nearby. Why not do projects that are relevant to their lives and the communities they live? Start with exploring the landscape on school grounds, make maps, measure, graph, document, record, read. It’s not necessarily always teaching about the environment, but teaching through the environment. It takes creativity and demands getting out of the classroom, but the best education provokes thought, goes deep and covers more than one subject at a time. And for those that live and die by test scores, check out results: www.SEER.org

John Dewey said it well: “Give students something to do, not learn: and when the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, learning naturally results.“

Do you believe that we, as parents and community members, ought to advocate for more than recycling programs?
Sure, teaching “environmental manners” like turning off lights and separating trash into “reuse/compostable/recycling facility/landfill” bins makes sense, but we can’t process why we do it and what the impact is unless we have a baseline understanding of the connections.

Education ought to be relevant for the time in which we live. Industrialists designed the formal public school system. The result: our “take-make-waste’ system is productive making stuff we consume. But forty years after the first Earth Day, every living system on the earth is in decline. And that decline is accelerating. Sure, we’re the half that live comfortably, and are disconnected from our needs like never before, but that doesn’t change reality. If it were just the destruction of tropical forests, or just the loss of topsoil (& desertification), or just the loss of biodiversity, or just the toxins we produce, or just the collapse of the fisheries or the acidification of the ocean, we’d be OK. But it’s all of them, plus more (like adding another two billion of us) and they are all connected. These issues are just symptoms of a failing system and applying band-aids doesn’t constitute a solution. Linear growth on a finite planet only works for so long.

So, start local and hands-on, but is teaching about the environment in education is for more than just elementary kids?
First of all, I agree with David Sobel: “No tragedies before 4th grade.”
With ten-year-olds, I’d rather discuss how acting like a local detective improves observation skills and aids writing skills.

But for sure, there are universities waking up to the fact that continuing to teach as if we’re in the beginning of the industrial revolution no longer makes sense. Why teach subjects in silos if the world doesn’t work in silos?
If you’re going to have a conversation on food policy, it ought to include fossil fuels, subsidies, defense spending and healthcare. Unfortunately, most universities are structured in silos and change is notoriously slow and painful.

David Orr at Oberlin College believes we don’t have a problem in education, but a problem of education. Consider: those that have created the most damage to the planet are those with the most formal education. So, if more of the same type of education produces more bad, what should we do?

Orr created a 60,000’ university building that produces more energy than it consumes. Oberlin uses it as a teaching tool. He brings in disciplines from across the curricula, from history to econ and they learn how the building works with its surroundings. Sure, the science students may focus on material cycles and energy flows, while econ students cover cost versus price on construction and energy, but they all learn to become ecologically literate.

Another interesting Orr point worth debating is how we rate schools. Rather than base rankings on factors like SAT scores and graduates starting salaries, let’s use factors like ‘waste per student’, ‘how the school benefits the community’ or ‘how much positive work the graduates do.’

Do kids of all ages “get it”? What is their reaction to environmental teachings?
We don’t give kids enough credit. Children blow me away every day. They are brilliant. In a lot of ways, they can be systems thinkers easier than adults. Every six-year-old I’ve met is perfect. Creative and curious, they are natural learners that go through trial and error daily. We only need to make sure they remain curious at 16 and at 26. “To educate,” the Latin root, I believe, means “to draw out.” Too often, however, school kills creativity, rewards passive memorization and dulls our senses.

Empowering kids needn’t be difficult. A middle school class can learn critical thinking skills studying a local topical issue like, for example water. Through exploration, interviews, research, documentation, reading, journaling and debating, they learn deep and wide. Perhaps by working with the local water department, or redesigning the school’s landscape, do something to impact water quality. I don’t mean to ignore, say, the history of Jamestown and Haitian colonialism, but maybe while on water you tie in a comparison on the history of Haiti and the effects of water use and deforestation with local history.

The environmental movement shouldn’t be about the end of the world. It’s about all the good being done creating a new, better world. I tell kids every day, this is the greatest time in the history of the world to be alive. For creative thinkers and problem solvers, it’s a world full of possibilities and opportunities.

Finally, any advice to parents?
Playing outdoors, with little or no agenda, is not wasted time. It’s productive on a lot of levels. On the environmental education part, here’s another Sobel quote: “Give kids a chance to love the earth before we ask them to save it.” And, even if you care nothing about the “environmental movement” consider what qualities your children need to thrive. Kids entering 1st grade this year will reach retiring age in 2070. What kind of changes will they see in next sixty years? How do you develop adults who can think on their own, assess risk and problem solve? Can you nurture their curiosity?

Lastly, my sister has this Eleanor Roosevelt quote posted in her kitchen:
“If you want your kids to turn out well, spend half as much money on them and twice as much time.”

Monday, October 25, 2010

How can your kids learn it all? Teacher Opportunity

So much to cover, so little time...

Being a kid today is different than a generation ago. Between an increase in the amount of enrichment activities, organized sports, "screen" options (TV, video games, computers, phones) and homework, some kids suffer from increased pressure. The only thing there isn't more of is time.

A lot of teachers I've spoken with feel the same way. They're expected to cover a growing amount of material in a limited amount of class time. Yes, kids have to perform well on tests, but the best teachers understand if they can keep their kids engaged and curious while developing critical thinkers that can problem solve, test scores will take care of themselves.

How do they do it?
Choose lessons they can cover in depth, where students learn multiple subjects simultaneously and tie into life outside of the four walls of the classroom.

To that end, please consider getting your schools involved with local organizations that offer cross-curricula lesson planning. If we're going to raise kids smarter than us, they will understand connections, i.e. we can't have a conversation about healthcare unless we also talk about exercise, agriculture and fossil fuels. The only way to more deeply understand nature around us is if we get in it, eat it, read about it, experiment with it and write about.

Nov. 13 & 20 at the Chicago Botanic Garden
8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Fee: $150 ($140 for Educator Members)
Grade level: K-8
CPDU credit: 15, Lane credit: 1, Graduate credit: 1

The Garden brings you the latest techniques for fostering literacy through science and science through literacy. Learn how to develop practical lesson plans that inspire kids to read, write about, and discover science and nature. Toby Rajput, Children’s and Youth Literature Librarian at National-Louis University will introduce you to the best new books in a variety of genres and suggest learning activities to enhance teaching and learning about the natural world. You’ll take home a bibliography so you can plan your own lessons to engage students with these extraordinary and beautiful books.

We will look at some of our favorite books and learn a number of bookmaking techniques, including pop-ups. Local author, Cheryl Bardoe will be talking about her book Gregor Mendel: The Friar Who Grew Peas and making science content and literacy connections for the classroom.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Creativity in our Kids. Why we need it. How to get it.

Here's a recap on the disturbing article from Newsweek, titled, "Creativity in America."

While the tests it references confirm enriched environments are allowing our children to test higher on IQ exams, the reverse is happening with creativity scores. This is troubling because creativity and curiosity are a better measure of long term success. It's especially troubling in 2010 b/c:
  1. Current trends at home and at school decrease, rather than nurture, our capacity for creativity
  2. The 21st century needs the original and useful ideas which flow from creativity now more than ever.
The culprits include more screen time, less unstructured free time and more standardized teaching and testing.

The short answer for more creative kids:
1. Limit screen time and increase play time. Consider reading "Free-Range Kids" or at least a blog posting.
2. Meet with school admins and teachers to discuss developing kids who can think critically. Ask for lessons that have to do with problems in and around the school. Ask about project based learning that teaches across the curriculum. Consider using the Environment as an Integrating Context at www.seer.org or the Teacher's Guide to my "An Environmental Guide from A to Z" found on the Green Sugar Press website.

For kids to thrive in the 21st century, they'll need more than the left side of the brain. Creativity happens when both sides are engaged. And to ensure both sides are working well, the part of the body below the neck needs to get exercise too!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

For Chicago Area Teachers (and for parents that have kids that have teachers)



Oct. 13 – 16 at the Chicago Botanic Garden

Begin your Conference experience by joining fellow attendees for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres at new Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Science Center. Tour the science center, sip a cocktail, and take a tram ride around the 2.6 perimeter of the Garden. Trams are wheelchair accessible.

To register: visit www.ahta.org
Chicago educators are eligible to register for Saturday only and receive CPDUs.
Grade level: PreK-12
CPDU credit: 1 per hour, CPS Lane credit: 1, Graduate credit: 1

Recent research on psychological development and education has demonstrated the positive influence of exposing individuals of all ages and abilities to the natural world and plant rich environments. The Chicago Botanic Garden and the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) will address the programs and benefits of interaction with nature at the 2010 AHTA Annual Conference / Chicago Botanic Garden 13th Annual School Garden Conference. Specifically, the conference program will focus on how nature, horticulture, and environmental studies are integrated in a variety of contexts to support educational, vocational, social, and therapeutic goals. Individuals with special challenges are recognized as an increasing segment of the general population, particularly as early diagnoses, medical technologies, and “mainstreaming” or “inclusion” programs improve. Welcoming individuals of all abilities, particularly those with special challenges – physical, cognitive, and behavioral – to a plant rich environment poses particular challenges to educators, therapists, and human services workers alike.

Nov. 13 & 20 at the Chicago Botanic Garden
8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Fee: $150 ($140 for Educator Members)
Grade level: K-8
CPDU credit: 15, Lane credit: 1, Graduate credit: 1

The Garden brings you the latest techniques for fostering literacy through science and science through literacy. Learn how to develop practical lesson plans that inspire kids to read, write about, and discover science and nature. We will look at some of our favorite books and learn a number of bookmaking techniques.

Dec. 4 at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Dec. 11 at the Brookfield Zoo
8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Fee: $150 ($140 for Educator Members)
Grade level: PreK-12
CPDU credit: 15, Lane credit: 1, Graduate credit: 1

Why are deserts important? Why are some spreading? Why should we protect them? Join educators in the Garden’s greenhouses to explore desert plants. Then, seek out desert animals at the Brookfield Zoo. At both locations you will learn about the importance of deserts through hands-on activities that support interdisciplinary instruction.

Dec. 8 at the Chicago Botanic Garden
5 – 7:30 p.m.
Fee: $25
Grade level: PreK-12
CPDU credit: 1 per hour, CPS Lane credit: NA, Graduate credit: NA

Enjoy wine and cheese while you wander through the greenhouses, and experience a behind-the-scenes tour of Wonderland Express and the Lenhardt Library. See what the Garden has to offer schools, students, and teachers by participating in some of our most popular programs at hands-on activity stations. New this year, we will raffle special prizes including a free guided field trip ($115 value), a Sleuthmobile tram tour for a class ($75 value), Garden Shop and Garden Café gift certificates ($20 value), and more!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Last night I attended the world premiere of the documentary "Carbon Nation" at Millennium Park. It's a feel-good 90 minutes worth of solutions to our carbon intense industrial aged culture. It's not about limitations to our lifestyles, or going backwards, but, rather, about radically reducing the use of fossil fuels and creating a cleaner world, based largely on efficiency, solar, wind and geothermal. It's as inspirational as much as Gore's "Inconvient Truth" was depressing. We don't need buzz kills, we need a price to be placed on pollution to allow for our creativity and innovation to flourish.

I scanned the audience. There were a number of grade school aged kids at the show (in addition to the college-aged set and their 350.org t-shirts) and the movie did offer hope, e.g. highlighting business people involved in growing industries. It showed teenagers installing rooftop solar panels and recommended kids become engineers. It mentioned how a decrease in the use of fossil fuels will mean a more human labor intensive world.

That being said, a movie can cover only so much. So, while I enjoyed the parts of "Carbon Nation" which draw the connections between the health of our local air, water and soil with the use of subsidized fossil fuels, it wasn't about kids or for kids. There's another documentary I'd like to see and its appears to be more about getting kids outside, to give them a chance to bond with, and fall in love with, the earth, rather than stuck in front of electronic screens. It's called "Play Again." If you'd like to be involved in hosting a screening, let me know. Here's the link: http://www.playagainfilm.com

And, oh, here's the link on information for Carbon Nation: http://www.carbonnation.tv/

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Nature Teaches Children Well....an ABC article


By Clint Williams
Green Right Now

The kids are heading back to the classroom – if they aren’t already there sitting in rows in front of a blackboard – and parents are plotting how to give their children an academic advantage. Some are buying DVDs, books or computer programs. Some are paying for tutors or study skill seminars.

All well and good. But if you want you kids to be smarter, some experts say, push them out the backdoor to play in the dirt, hunt for bugs and pollywogs, and explore the nearby park.

“If you want your kid to go to Harvard,” author Richard Louv told me in 2008, “tell him to go outside.” Louv, who coined the phrase nature deficit disorder in his book Last Child in the Woods, says playing outside with the bugs and the butterflies and the birds is critical to the development of children. In his book, Louv explores the modern disconnect from nature and its impact on children, citing research that links obesity, depression and short attention spans to the lack of time exploring forest and fields.

You don’t need a slew of scientific studies to tell you kids aren’t as connected as they once were with the natural world. But the disconnect is well documented. A British study, for example, found children much better at identifying Pokeman characters than common plants and animals.

Jenna Hunter, an Earth Science teacher at Manhattan’s High School for Environmental Studies New York City, sees the disconnect in her students – students already with a scholarly leaning toward the natural world.

“Their closest engagement with nature is cockroaches,” says Hunter.

So, for the past two summers, Hunter has been a mentor with Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) —an environmental leadership program for teenagers run by The Nature Conservancy out of New York City.

LEAF combines enriched environmental study with paid residential summer jobs for students on Conservancy preserves. For many students, the four-week program is the first time leaving their borough, says Brigitte Griswold, Director of Youth Programs.

The program is a mix of academic work and manual labor—from restoring habitat by removing invasive plants to building trails and footbridges.

“The kids the first week are generally freaking out about bugs,” says Griswold. “They think dragon flies can kill you.”

That’s why it’s important to have the adult mentors – and a 3:1 ratio – and an extended time in the woods, Griswold says. That combination helps ensure the introduction to nature is a positive experience, not an icky one.

The LEAF program got a big boost earlier this year with an $800,000 gift from the Toyota USA Foundation. The grant will enable LEAF to double the number of students and environmental high schools served in the New York City metro area. The grant will also help lay the foundation for LEAF’s expansion into new cities next year.

Science teacher Hunter says she sees long-reaching effects from the time spent outdoors.

“The students are more curious—and not just about environmental science,” Hunter says.

“Their sense of place in the world is greater than reality TV shows, greater than New York City.”

It’s best not to wait until the kids are in high school to expose them to nature. The sooner the better, and the greater the benefits.

The free play of exploring the outdoors has measurable benefits for the cognitive, creative and emotional development of children, says Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., president, CEO, and co-founder with Louv, of the Children and Nature Network, created to reconnect children with nature.

“This isn’t frivolous,” Charles says, adding that the over-scheduled, formal activities that have replaced splashing in nearby creeks reduces the ability of children to make decisions for themselves. Play without risk means not learning how to manage risk.

Tree planting in the city (Photo: The Nature Conservancy)
But it’s not just that no nature is bad. Studies show more nature is good.

“Connection with nature improves cognitive development in all subjects and skill areas,” Charles says. “I often think of nature as the first classroom.”

The sense of wonder children experience brings focus.

“Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development,” writes Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University in his book Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection (Island Press, 2005).

Even just being able look out at trees, shrubs and the open sky has benefits. A study of 101 Michigan high schools found schools with larger windows and more views of natural elements had students with higher standardized test scores, higher graduation rates, and a greater percentage of students planning to attend college. The 2008 study controlled for a number of socio-demographic variables.

But one walk in the woods isn’t going to boost your kids SAT scores. There needs to be sustained exposure – and some guidance – to the great outdoors, experts say. But that doesn’t mean regular backpacking trips into a distant wilderness area.

“Nearby nature is incredibly important,” Charles says. “There is more nature to be found than might be expected in urban and suburban settings.”

Griswold of The Nature Conservancy notes that 25 percent of New York City is park space. New York City has more than 1,700 parks, including the 770 acres of the iconic Central Park in Manhattan. Then there are refuges that aren’t frequently the backdrop in movies such as the 654-acre Alley Pond Park in Queens, a place known for massive tulip trees, oaks and beeches, or the 250-acre New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. There’s also the richly landscaped and lofty High Line walkway that wends its way through Manhattan.

Research of the benefits to children of playing outdoors and tips for parents and teachers can be found at the Children & Nature Network website.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Composting at Home

Worms eat my garbage. It saves some of my food and paper scraps from being trucked to the landfill, but it also reminds me how nature works, i.e. nature has no worthless waste. So, sometimes, I bring some of my worms on the road with me and get questions from people who want to set up composting at home. To that end, here are a few resources to help:

Comprehenisve Composting Information:

Worm (or "vermi") Composting and Do-it yourself worm-bin:

Backyard Outdoor Composting:

http://www.urbanwormgirl.com *

*The Chicago-based Urban Worm Girls will even have wine and worm parties to help you get started!!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nature Journals

I visited the 2nd grade classes at The Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC) this morning. It's their last week of school until August and we discussed:

1. The fun to be had getting outside to play every single day (side benefit- growing muscles)
2. Exploring their backyards, their parks and their communities (side benefit- getting to know and connecting to where we live)
3. Continuing reading and writing over the summer (side benefit- growing brains)

Often, over summer break kids regress and teachers spend the fall re-teaching what was taught the previous spring. AGC counters that effect numerous ways (e.g. shorter summer). Today, each child received a journal to write in over the summer. We labeled them "mistake journals," and talked about the role mistakes (and "effort") play in the writing process. We brainstormed ideas for how the notebooks might be used (now written on page 1 of the notebook), e.g. writing stories, both fiction and non-fiction, keeping track of summer activities and writing about the books we read.

I was only there for a few minutes and if the notebooks are full when they return in August it's their teachers, Regina Harris and Jim Gribble, that deserve the credit- as they wrap up a school year that's 30% longer than a typical Chicago Public School. There's nothing better than being with curious kids hungry to learn. The only credit I want is for for teaching them how to carry their notebook as they cruise around their neighborhood. :)

See you outside (even if the rain doesn't stop),

Note: Thanks also to Clare Walker Leslie for turning me on to nature journaling a few years ago. What a great way to teach observations skills! http://clarewalkerleslie.com/

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

commencement speech time of the year...

After hearing from a disappointed Boston College senior following last week's commencement address, I read the script of Jeffrey Immelt's speech. It was more like a GE advertisement than a "what to do with the rest of your life now" primer. That being said, I can't even recall who gave my commencement speech...

Last year at University of Portland, Paul Hawken delivered on the hype. Not only will those seniors remember this commencement speech, if we're lucking, millions more will hear these words and be motivated to shape the 21st century.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Oftentimes, I have a difficult time relaxing. Thinking it will make me feel like I'm being productive, I cram too much on my calendar and don't take breaks. As it turns out, when I'm running around like a chicken with his head cut off, I never work at 100% efficiency. Nor is it much fun. So, I took a few minutes to re- read parts of Dr. Stuart Brown's Play to be reminded purposeless fun can be good for me (in addition to kids). I won't pretend to know how brains function, but love this line:

“Play lies at the core of creativity and innovation.”-Dr. Stuart Brown, Play

We're all born creative. Unfortunately, there's a notion that as we grow up (or grow older, like in the 3rd grade) there's no time for dreaming, tinkering and playing. We need creativity more now than ever...So, make way for play today!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Mention the topic education at a cocktail party, the water cooler or your child’s basketball game, and you’re likely to receive an earful. Everyone has an opinion, and while the US is divided on much, most agree we can, and need to, do better with children’s education. Perhaps divided on whether education is too expensive, too cumbersome or wholly ineffective, most are united in believing the purpose of education is to develop a world-class labor force and to act as a means of upward mobility. And for our children, we want to give them the best opportunity to succeed.

Let’s take a step back and consider how we got here and the consequences of our industrial revolution-aged education:

Not long ago (say, two hundred years), we humans numbered fewer than one billion. We were tied to the land and the seasons and, materially, we were poor. Short labor, we used imagination, creativity and natural resources created over millions of years to boost productivity.

Productive we’ve been, developing a “take-make-waste” economy for the benefit of humans, i.e. extract natural resources, produce "goods" and then throw them "away." Most of the nearly seven billion of us now live longer, more comfortable lives than could have been conceived of two centuries ago.

At the same time, every living system is in decline and more than 1B people are in search of work (and half the human population lives on less than $2 dollars per day). In the US, roughly 15% live in poverty. Our definition of progress has been more, faster, cheaper. For most of the past two hundred years, more, faster, cheaper meant an increase in our standard of living. But “more” no longer necessarily means “better.” The increase in the US GDP since 1970 is staggering, yet at about that year the quality of our lives and our “happiness” hit a plateau.

Most junior high students, given the opportunity, could tell you linear thinking on a finite planet is destined to fail. If the human species use resources faster than the replenishment rate, than we’re bound to run into limits. There are only so many trees to cut and burn, only so much soil to deplete. Only a limited amount of clean, fresh water and biological diversity, built up over millions of years, remain. And the vast majority of scientists agree, the once-in-a-billion-years fire sale on coal, oil and gas is altering the atmosphere, not to mention at the root cause of resource wars.

In the name of progress, we’ve ignored the laws of ecology and the laws of thermodynamics. In effect, we’re robbing Peter (natural capital) to pay Paul (humans). The air, water and soil end up as repositories for the worthless waste our system creates. The system works for a while, but if we need Peter to provide us services to live, soon Paul suffers along with Paul.

So, when it comes to education, the intentions of the large majority are good. Who doesn’t want the best for their children or the children they teach in the classroom? Yet, the current educational system largely ignores reality and the need for real curriculum reform. 1950’s style education doesn’t develop leaders of the 21st century. A new recycling program in the cafeteria and an Earth Day celebration once a year doesn’t cut it.

It begins with children learning where they live and how the world around them works, e.g. Where does drinking water come from? Our food? Energy? (Not the tap and not the grocery store.) At the same time, it’s foolish to think all of a sudden children don’t need to focus on reading, writing and arithmetic. But with a short school day and short school year, who has time to cover both the learning standards mandated by the states and teach environmental education?

How about using the environment as a teaching tool across the spectrum, i.e. studying nature through reading, writing, social studies, math, science and art. A growing number of educators understand children’s brains aren’t wired to sit in desks and memorize abstract information. Additionally, much of that information has little relevance to their real world and future success in it. Rather than separate subjects into silos, why not projects that 1.) cover multiple subjects at once, and 2.) study the “stuff” nearby. Why spend a year teaching the Jamestown settlement, multiplication, the water cycle, writing narratives, reading biographies and try to squeeze in a unit on the Amazon Rainforest when all the same subjects may be covered studying a few different aspects of the school community where the students live? Hands-on, place-based education leads to children who can think AND who perform well on tests.

Give students something to do, not learn; and when the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking, learning naturally results.” —John Dewey

“Using outdoor learning leads to increases in test scores.”
– Research Article: Closing the Achievement Gap: Using the Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning. www.Seer.org

“Using the environment as an integrating context (EIC) in school curricula results in wide-ranging, positive effects on student learning.” – Lieberman and Hoody

I often joke when asked why I decided to write books for kids, “I want to make sure kids grow up smarter than us.” By that I mean, understanding how nature works. To start, children need to spend time in it so they can comprehend first-hand what John Muir meant when he wrote: “Tug on anything at all and you’ll find it connected to everything else in the universe.”

Things in the 21st century are changing fast, faster than ever before, but the status quo is still powerful, e.g. Ironically, Texas curriculum standards determine text book content nationwide. Yet, California, for all it’s sins, is in the midst of offering a comprehensive set of lessons: http://www.calepa.ca.gov/Education/EEI/Curriculum/Default.htm

The Stone Age didn’t end b/c we ran out of stones and fossil fuel age won’t end because we run out of ancient sun energy. There are better ways and nature show us the way. The opportunity of the 21st century will be transitioning to an economy that works. An economy modeled on the success of nature, namely:

• recycling all it’s nutrients
• running on current solar energy
• thriving on diversity
• demanding local expertise
• rewarding cooperation over competition

It’s time to focus on more than just test scores. Developing creative thinkers connected to the world around them, understanding that the 21st century is the greatest time in the history of mankind to be alive.

See you outside,

P.S. If you’d like something for late elementary aged children, check out the Teacher’s Guide for An Environmental Guide from A to Z on our website.

P.P.S. Focused on children and nature, David Sobel is a leader in place-based education. At the high school and university level, check out David Orr of Oberlin College. Paul Hawken’s University of Portland’s commencement speech of 2009 is a must-read: www.paulhawken.com

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Outdoor Fun During Winter....

THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY POSTED AT "A Fresh Squeeze" (with pictures)
Click on the link: http://tinyurl.com/ygh4g3k

Winter Weather Got You Down?
Embrace the cold, grab the kids and get outside!
23 Jan 2010 by Tim Magner

While the thermometer reads freezing and we can only dream of a prolonged spring thaw, don’t resign to spend the winter cooped up and stuck inside- especially when it comes to the kids.

Playing outside, no matter the weather, is a critical part of healthy childhood development. Watching children react to snow is enough to remind us spending time outdoors is in our genes and part of who we are.

A wide range of research shows time in nature outdoors during formative years leads to gains in cognitive development, self-discipline, creative expression, motor and language skills and social interactions. Children who regularly play in nature generally demonstrate greater self-esteem, are better able to handle stress and are often healthier (re: sick less often). Many believe that outdoor experiences are critical to the development of a sense of wonder that is an important motivator for life-long learning.

That’s all good, but what do you do when we live in the Midwest and we shiver just looking at the icicles outside our window? Resist the urge to pull up the blanket and read on:

There’s no such thing as bad weather, only poorly prepared participants. The surest way to make an outdoor activity with children (or anyone) successful: dress appropriately.

For bundling up during winter, take notes from wildlife—think ducks, beavers and seals. It’s an analogy that children can understand when getting dressed. The outer layer is waterproof to keep them dry and the under layer keeps them warm. Once covere d from head to toe with boots, hats and mittens, children can engage their instincts to slide like a seal and waddle like a duck.

A couple notes: cotton absorbs sweat, so consider underwear material that wicks sweat away from the body. For ample circulation, sometimes less is more. Make sure boots aren’t too snug. For socks, wool is best. Scarves and hoods are good, but pay attention that visibility isn’t impaired.

Remember two advantages we have over wild animals: 1.) Layers can be shed if we get warm, and 2.) If we get too cold, there’s always soup and hot chocolate inside.

Top 10 Ideas for Outdoor Fun.
Hint: If it’s cold, choose activities that keep kids moving. The more active we are, the more our bodies warm as we burn energy.

1. Go on a Hunt—a Winter Scavenger Hunt: Create a list and then head outdoors to search for different parts of wildlife, e.g. a seed, pinecone, feather, an animal nest, something round, a decaying or chewed leaf, something that feels bumpy/smooth.

2. Become a Tracker: Find as many tracks in the snow (non-human & human) as possible. Identify and see where they lead. Can you find tunnels, empty bird nests or drays (squirrel homes)?

3. Fire the Imagination: Play pretend as animals on a journey through the wild in the winter. Midwest animal examples include: squirrel, robin, raccoon, coyote, bear, dog, mouse, hawk.

4. Unleash the Artist: Paint the snow using brushes and liquid tempera paint, or with colored water in squirt bottles. Alternatively, as a post-outside activity, draw or paint a snow scene. Using white chalk on colored paper, sketch a nearby winter scene. For snow, put down watered-down white glue and sprinkle powdered laundry soap.

5. Become Builders: Start with an ice structure and find containers to fill with colored water and freeze. Once frozen, remove and use to build ice structures. Any props are good that encourage play.

Graduate and build an igloo (or a fort or snow tunnels). Using a straight edge of a metal shovel, create an igloo house by cutting blocks of snow and creating “bricks” to build walls. A tarp may be necessary to cover the roof. Alternatively, cave-like openings in a pile of snow will work. Be careful of collapsing snow!

6. Become a Weather Reporter and make a snow gauge: Use any container, preferably something clear, i.e. ½ cut off plastic soda bottle. Mark the snow gauge in inches and centimeters and hold steady by placing rocks against it on the outside. Track and graph results during winter months. A yardstick may also be used for a snow gauge, but is less accurate due to variables like wind drift.

Additional weather reporting: measure snow bank temperature. Many animals, including mice, understand snow insulates. Place a thermometer at the base of the snow bank (place on the ground, in the bottom, and give it a little room so it’s not “packed” in). Check back several times and compare the reading to outside air temperature. Discuss the role of temperature on the properties of water as a solid, liquid and gas.

7. Create Scientific Experiments: As long as we’re talking temperatures, take the time to freeze water. Fill different sized containers and make predictions. Try with similar containers, using cold water in one and warm in the other.

8. Do Detective Work: Observe the effects of winter on your house, your yard and the neighborhood. How are the trees and plants different? Why is the air dryer? What does frost look like on windows? How and why do icicles form? Take a magnifying glass/hands lens and observe.

9. Be a friend to animals that remain during the winter: Create a birdfeeder, garland or food-rich snowman. Hang it from a tree or build it in a place that’s observable from a window inside. The birdfeeder may be as simple as pinecones covered in peanut butter with seeds. Create a garland with cranberries and popcorn. For a snowman that attracts animals, cover the body parts with food, e.g. carrot, cranberries and raisins, although I still like sticks/branches for arms.

10. If you get cold, start moving: Nothing keeps us warm like burning energy. Conduct running races, sprint up hills, sled or roll down them. Create an obstacle course. Play follow the leader.

Pre- and Post-Outdoor activities/questions/discussions/writing prompts:
Discuss with your kids what you might and, might not, find outside. Why? Why not?

How do animals in Illinois stay warm in the winter? What about the animals in the Arctic? Which ones make changes to help them survive? e.g. extra fur, camouflage, slow heart rate (or migrate!)

How do we stay warm in the winter? Inside? Outside?

How do we make ‘clouds’ when it is cold outside?

If you’re ambitious enough to venture further than your yard:
The Chicago area is full of semi-wild areas that can feel a million miles away. Check out the websites for The Chicago Park District and Forest Preserve of Cook County.

If you don’t experience the itch to get outdoors, it won’t take much coaxing once the electronic games are unplugged. So, leave the hibernating to the polar bears and commit to engage the senses outdoors year-round.

See you outside,
Tim “Green Sugar” Magner

P.S. Bonus Activities:
1.) Arctic Dog Sled Team in Chicago and more… See a real arctic dog sled team, watch as amazing ice sculptures are created, listen to winter tales told by storytellers, sip hot cocoa and snowshoe at the 5th annual Polar Adventure Days at Northerly Island. This free event takes place on February 20 from noon to 4 p.m.

2.) Winter camping is also available at Illinois State Parks through the winter months. Enjoy cross-country skiing and camping at Illinois Beach State Park, Chain o' Lakes State Park, Johnson-Sauk Trail State Park, Kankakee River State Park.