The changing hues at the Washington Park Arboretum these days signal a transition. Many of the deciduous trees that make up our collection are booting down in preparation for winter dormancy. Despite these seasonal changes amongst the plants, however, there is an exciting new energy in the air, one of growth and development. The source of this vibrancy is the newest and youngest members of our UW Botanic Gardens community – the inaugural class of our Fiddleheads Forest School.
This new endeavor is designed for preschool-aged children, and aims to introduce these 3-5 year olds to the natural world in the best way possible, by immersing them in it. In gently guiding their innate curiosity, our uber-qualified teachers, Sarah Heller & Kit Harrington, seek to promote the complete development of their students – mental, emotional, physical and social. A lofty goal to be sure, but one we feel well-worth pursuing. And judging by the response from the families involved, one for which there is strong desire to be met.
Innumerable studies point towards the value of early childhood learning. Businesses and municipalities around the country are recognizing the long-term benefits of starting kids off on the right foot and are making investments in hopes of creating a more competent and competitive work force down the road. These “Grow Smart” initiatives can be found in states across the country and make the connection between regional economic growth and the importance of early childhood education. It behooves organizations like ours that lean green to join this movement if we are to have any hope of achieving a more sustainable relationship with the Earth.
Richard Louv sounded the alarm in his now seminal book, “Last Child in the Woods”, in which he coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe a social byproduct of the information age. Louv pointed out that while kids and people in general become more and more plugged in to a virtual world, they simultaneously become less and less connected to the natural one. Disconnection leads to a loss or lack of appreciation, and in the Environmental Education world, appreciation is the first step towards conservation.
Over a year in the making, we are now almost two weeks into our first year of the Fiddleheads Forest School. We have twenty-four families who have taken this exciting plunge with us and we couldn’t be more grateful for their trust and support. The spectacular outdoor classroom that is the UWBG Washington Park Arboretum has never felt more perfect a space than with this new application. And we could not have found a more dynamic duo than Sarah & Kit to lead this adventure. So two weeks in, and I’m happy to report, so far, so so good.
Are we winning the battle in combating nature deficit disorder? Only time will tell. At the UW Botanic Gardens we work a lot with trees and perhaps as a result, we think like trees and take a long-term approach. The seeds we plant today, we plant to ensure healthy forests for tomorrow. With this mentality, we hope that when these 3-5 year olds grow up to have 3-5 year olds of their own, that outdoor schools for early learners are commonplace, and that we as a society will have had the forethought to set aside spaces like the Arboretum in which to hold them.