Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary, Hitchcock Center, Earthwork Programs connect children and environment

Monday, September 08, 2014
On a hot summer day in mid-July, Rainier Jewett, 8, of Florence rose up from the underbrush in the woods of Conway covered in mud and forest debris and sporting a broad, sly smile.

Then several more young campers, including Caleb Schmitt 13, and Ari Benjamin 10, both of Williamsburg, also emerged from the forest. They were all participating in a summer day camp run by the Earthwork Programs.

Frank Grindrod, is director and founder of Earthwork, which offers wilderness education programs and teaches emergency survival and self-sufficiency skills. Grindrod described how his programs help people of all ages learn to broaden their ways of seeing, in order to understand, survive, and thrive in the natural world, and along the way he paused to talk about plants that were native to the area.

SLIDESHOW Outdoor learning camps at Arcadia, Hitchcock and Earthwork

“Research shows that kids can’t identify many common plants or trees in their environment, but they can identify 500 corporation logos,” Grindrod said. “Imagine what they would know if learning about the environment was instilled in our culture rather than learning how to be good consumers.”

At the camp, some children built a shelter made of forest debris while others collected kindling for a fire that they would later learn to make using a bow drill.

Maeve Dunkerley, 10, of Florence, sat on a log braiding and twisting bits of raffia into a kind of rope called cordage.

“It is really fun to make cordage,” Maeve said. “I want to learn how to make fire too, but that means I have to put my shoes on for safety, and that will break my record of not wearing shoes since yesterday morning,” she added.

Ellie Pinkham, 6, of Ashfield, clearly was enjoying her time at camp. “Today was really fun!” Ellie said. “We got to get into nature, I mean we put mud on our faces and looked just like nature,” she added as bits of mud fell from her cheek.

Many environmental educators agree that an early, positive connection for children with nature lays the foundation for creating environmentally caring adults who understand how and where people fit into the natural world.

Earthwork Programs, along with the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton and Northampton and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, are three local organizations that provide environmental education for children as well as adults by weaving together science, ecology and outdoor skills with fun and exciting activities.

While each has its own unique offerings, all offer a variety of year-round programs for youngsters and adults, as well as summer day camps, and home-school programming.

They share a common goal of connecting people to the natural world in an experiential and meaningful way.

“It is an intuitive part of being human to interact with nature,” Grindrod said. “Nature is like a nutrient, if we don’t have enough, it affects us cognitively and physically.”

Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary

The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary at 127 Combs Road, Easthampton, has 70 years of experience in conservation and land protection, environmental education and advocacy. The sanctuary has 720 acres of forest, meadows, grasslands, marsh, and wetlands.

“We have grown considerably over the years and we offer a wide and expanding range of environmental programming,” sanctuary Director Jonah Keane said. “Our nature preschool is one of our flagship programs that began in the 1970s. It is a really nice way to get very small children out into the woods.”

The preschool for children ages 3 to 5 is offered from mid-September to mid-June and children learn about plants and animals through hands-on programs.

The Arcadia summer nature day camp uses forests, fields and vernal pools as the setting for youngsters to explore different ecological communities. Campers ages 4 to 16 do take hikes, play nature-oriented games, do arts and crafts and learn about nature photography.

The sanctuary also offers for a variety of programs throughout the year that feature outdoor activities that include building natural structures such as tepees made of black locust and grapevine branches, learning about wildlife and ecosystems, and creating art from natural materials.

Arcadia opens its doors to a variety of school groups and sends educators out into school classrooms.

“We also have a wide range of programs for adults, like programs on wildlife, bird identification, nature and history walks, and canoeing,” Keane said.

Arcadia bird-watching programs are geared both for children and adults. “We have a heron rookery here as well as a bald eagle’s nest right on the property,” Keane said.

“We tie what we do here to the bigger picture addressing issues like a loss of connection with nature, habitat loss, and climate change,” Keane added. “Environmental education is key for helping people address these issues, as it helps them to make educated and informed decisions.”

Hitchcock Center for the Environment

Located on 26 acres of conservation land in Amherst, the Hitchcock Center at 525 South Pleasant St. recently celebrated 50 years of providing environmental programming.

The center offers a summer nature camp for children ages 6 to 10, year-round programs for children and families, adult programs, field trips, school programs, and curriculum for home schooling.

“We are passionate about our work,” said Colleen Kelley, education director at Hitchcock. “For a small staff of 12, we cover a pretty big area including Holyoke, Northampton, Deerfield, Greenfield and Montague.”

Hitchcock’s parent and child preschool program offers weekly outdoor exploration combined with learning experiences fostering curiosity about the natural world. Fall and spring sessions are offered Friday mornings and afternoons.

The summer nature camp includes themed sessions such as finding patterns in nature, the buzz about bees, geology rocks! and animal superheroes.

The Hitchcock Center abuts and works closely with Bramble Hill Farm, a 120-acre property that provides learning space for programs.

“It is a really great collaboration,” Kelley said. “For example, the farm has bees and beehives, and this year they bought extra beekeeper suits for the kids.”

The center also shares a border and frequently partners with the Common School, and also provides curriculum for children being home schooled.

“There is so much research now that shows how much we lose by not being in the woods,” Kelley said. “I have seen kids who have difficulty in traditional school settings thrive in outdoor situations.

“I love to see kids growing up and becoming healthy, confident and comfortable in the woods and building the skills to resolve environmental problems,” she added.

Earthwork Programs

Getting out into woods, developing self-reliance, and teaching people how to see and interpret the natural world is the foundation for Grindrod’s Earthwork Wilderness Survival School, which he established in 1999.

Many of the Earthwork activities are in the woods of Conway. The offerings include summer camp programs where children learn how to make fires, build shelters, track wildlife, identify plants, collect wild edibles, navigate in the woods and work effectively with others.

Earthwork also offers programs for home-schooled children, families and adults.

Grindrod said that nature programs are an excellent way to build confidence, self-reliance, and teamwork and to broaden how children see the natural world.

“I have had parents say, ‘I don’t know what you have done to my kid but it has changed them,’ ” Grindrod said.

“My vision is that kids and adults become more comfortable in the outdoors. I can facilitate that connection with nature, then pull myself out of the picture and let them explore develop their own relationship with the natural world.” Grindrod said.

Grindrod said a key to successful environmental education is the careful balance of fun, information and safety.

“We have to be careful about the gloom-and-doom message,” he explained. “That can be overwhelming and paralyzing. We are more about filling people’s vessels with hope.”