Guest column Jonah Keane: 75 years of environmental education in the Valley

  • Arcadia Nature Preschoolers from the late 1990s parade across the field in their butterfly costumes. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 10/9/2019 10:00:16 PM
Editor’s note: This is first in a three-part series on Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in its 75th year. The topic next month will focus on the land and wildlife the sanctuary helps protect.

When I mention I’m the sanctuary director at Arcadia, people almost always reply, “Oh! I love Arcadia.”

Usually they or their family attended Arcadia Nature Day Camp or Nature Preschool, or maybe their school visited on a field trip, or they learned about wildflowers on a guided walk one beautiful day. It could have been last week or decades ago because this is Arcadia’s 75th year as a Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuary, and environmental education programs, like the ones that made people fall in love with Arcadia, have run since the sanctuary’s first year.

All of these programs have similar goals: Deepening our community’s connection to nature and building a lifelong love of the natural world. Around the sanctuary, I get to watch these connections as they are being made.

Here are a few highlights I’ve seen during this 75th year: A group of 4- and 5-year-olds with antennae hats and wings “flying” through a field, Holyoke third graders excited to guess what habitats exist at Arcadia, and Northampton High School students with their arms wrapped around trees.

The 4- and 5-years-olds attend Arcadia Nature Preschool. When our preschool was founded back in 1976, it was the first nature-based preschool in the state and one of the first in the country. Some days, the preschoolers pretend to be the creatures they are studying, like butterflies. Every day, no matter the weather, they explore outside.

Over the course of this fall, all of Holyoke’s third graders will visit Arcadia to learn about local habitats. When the field trips begin, most students can think of desserts and rainforests but have a harder time thinking of what they would find closer to home. By the end, they have experienced firsthand forest, field and pond habitats. I overheard one child say: This is the best field trip ever!

The Northampton High students were measuring tree height and diameter as part of our Life in a Changing Climate program. Begun in 2015, the program offers the first climate change curriculum for middle and high schoolers developed for the Pioneer Valley. When I saw the students with their arms around trees, they were exploring how carbon is stored in forests for a lesson on climate science and climate solutions.

As I observe these young people at Arcadia during this milestone year, I’ve been doing two things. First, I’ve been asking, “so what?” So what that we are connecting people to nature? So what that we’ve been around for a long time? What does it really mean?

Fortunately, I’ve found a satisfying answer to these questions: This place and these programs are making a real difference in our valley and our world. That’s a big What! Here’s how:

Extensive research tracked by organizations such as the Child & Nature Network demonstrate the cognitive, mental and physical benefits of this kind of outdoor education. And Florence Williams’ 2017 book, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative,” follows scientists who are proving both the individual and societal benefits of time spent in nature.

Arcadia’s programs aren’t just about something fun to do outside. They shape participants in ways that have a lifelong impact. Arcadia “alums,” hooked on nature, continue to spend time outdoors, which supports their wellness, resourcefulness and resilience. And the passion for nature then motivates them to protect the natural world for themselves, their community, and future generations.

With hundreds of thousands of people having attended Arcadia programs through its 75 years, we’re well past the critical mass needed to make an impact. This group of people, no doubt, is a vital part of what makes the Valley a place that protects nature and makes it a great place to live.

The second thing I’ve been doing in this 75th year is feeling a sincere sense of gratitude. Innovative responses to the needs of the times is at the heart of Arcadia’s 75 years of environmental education.

This is only possible because of the generous Valley community. Volunteers are essential to our program offerings and donors’ willingness to take risks is what has allowed us to start new programs. During this anniversary year, we’ve been talking about how Arcadia has been community supported since day one, and we see that truth as we look at the development, delivery and success of our environmental education programs.

Now when I overhear someone talking about Arcadia, I’ll say — with gratitude for the community that makes Arcadia possible and an understanding of the significant impact of Arcadia’s work — “I love Arcadia, too.”

Jonah Keane is Mass Audubon’s Connecticut River Valley Sanctuaries Director.


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