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The goal: No child left inside

A growing Children in Nature movement seeks to mold their stewardship.

Barbara Hall

is a freelance writer in Harrisburg

Fifth grader Taylor Martin is at her 10-power microscope, transfixed. The petite girl with long brown hair has discovered a new universe: a swirl of white organisms, leeches, spirited in a miniature net from nearby Penns Creek to the science lab of outdoor educator Jere Motto.

Motto led Taylor and her classmates through five intensive sessions at the creek. They are back in the classroom reviewing their finds.

Outdoor Education classes have been part of the Mifflinburg schools since 1970, as well as neighboring districts like Selinsgrove, Shikellamy, Midd-West. These programs predate the current Children in Nature movement, a growing national grassroots effort to lure youngsters away from computers and TV, into the great outdoors. But the well-established outdoor-ed classes are likely to benefit from the 21st-century movement.

Children in Nature was inspired by the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. Spawned from within Maryland's Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the movement's membership now numbers 1,450 organizations, among them, Pennsylvania's Association of Environmental Educators, Hershey Gardens, and the Tyler Arboretum in Media. Member groups represent thousands of Americans.

The movement is the driving force behind legislation Congress is expected to consider in coming months as part of a reconfigured No Child Left Behind Act. Activists are seeking standards for environmental education, as well as funding for K-12 programs nationwide.

At a time when climate change and endangered plant and animal species command our concern, it stands to reason that future stewards of nature need and deserve such programs.

But make no mistake. The children and educators of Central Pennsylvania are way ahead of the rest of the country.

Keystone State administrators put environmental education on the books in 1984. "Each student shall understand the environment and the students' ecological relationship with it in order to recognize the importance of the quality of life in a healthy and balanced environment," the Department of Environmental Protection then stated.

Students have lived up to that mandate.

Mifflinburg grade schoolers, for instance, 16 years ago impressed a county government board with their savvy, testifying against a firm that sought to mine in the limestone-rich Penns Creek watershed. "The public hearing took on more life than I had originally planned," recalls Pattie Arduini, who had assigned her fifth graders environmental testing that led to their giving evidence. The company got its permit to mine, but with tight restrictions.

Motto reports that his students regularly submit Penns Creek species counts to the state Fish and Boat Commission.

However, just as the rest of the nation is catching up to the idea, Pennsylvania's programs are on the endangered list, caught between budget constraints and time demands imposed by preparation for standardized tests.

Mifflinburg, for example, used to have students spend a week at a Penns Creek camp. Now they are limited to day trips.

In Shikellamy, program director William Zeigler has managed to keep his weeklong camping component, which verses fifth graders in everything from John Muiresque journal-keeping to table manners they may have missed in the whirlwind of modern family schedules. But, he says, "there is talk we may shorten our program to three days."

Central Pennsylvania educators welcome the renewed interest in bringing children and nature together. And they can easily come up with a wish list should more funding materialize.

"I'd like to see younger children encouraged to explore on their own terms without some preconceived state educational standard that has to be measured and tested," says Mifflinburg's Arduini. Ideally, she adds, students would keep personal journals, much as did legendary natural writer Henry David Thoreau.

Motto suggests that any extra funding go to training outdoor-ed teachers. "Here in Mifflinburg's OE, we're all retired educators, and the clock is ticking," he said. "I want the program to continue after the current staff can no longer do it."

The longevity and depth of outdoor-ed programs are clear proof of their value: nothing less than nurturing coming generations to cherish and protect their environment. Federal legislation would not only sustain environmental education, but could spark a firmament of such programs across the country.