Monday, October 7, 2013

Nature Is A Cheap Classroom

Norristown birds, including a cardinal I call Ralphie
Eventually, I'm going to talk about Norristown's schools. They're a big reason people move out of town. But I'm finding that it's not an easy topic to research--there are too many facets to the problem. Too many people only look at test scores and funding. As an educator, I feel the need to find out as much as I can before passing judgement. One thing is certain, though, our kids need help in science.

Today I'm going to talk about something everyone involved with the youth of this town (especially parents and grandparents) can do to get our youngest kids interested in learning. And it's cheap.

Those who repeatedly insist on calling Norristown a city keep ignoring the fact that we've got one thing few cities do: an incredibly diverse natural environment. In most cities, you have to go to a large park to find what most of our residents here have in their backyards. Besides that, we have 5 parks, 2 creeks, and a river, all with unique ecosystems.

My dad got me interested in nature as soon as I could talk. He was a gardener, a birdwatcher, loved to walk, and loved star-gazing. These were all things we kids could do together with him. In fact, he and I gardened, took walks and watched birds together for 50 years, until a year or so before he died. As kid, these pastimes were my first positive educational experiences. They awoke my natural curiosity about how the world worked, and Dad was always willing to take us to the library each week to look up what we'd seen. Nowadays, when you can look things up on a cell phone, introducing your kids to nature is even easier.

How diverse is Norristown? In my backyard alone, I've seen around 30 different species of birds, and another dozen species, at least, flying overhead, or down by Stoney Creek and the river. In most cities, you'll see sparrows and starlings along with the usual pigeons, but not much else. As for animals, we of course have squirrels, but also groundhogs, rabbits, opossums, field mice, bats, raccoons, muskrats, and, seemly everywhere in summer, skunks. We have white-tailed deer and foxes in our parks.

Wild violets
We have hundreds, maybe thousands, of species of wildflowers. Sure, most people call them weeds, but my rule of thumb is that if the weeds don't pose a health hazard (like poison ivy and ragweed--at least teach your kids what poison ivy looks like), aren't so invasive that they try to take over my garden (like morning glories), don't look ugly where they are (growing through the sidewalk, for instance), and have pretty flowers, I let them grow. I have wild violets, day flowers, star-of-Bethlehems and dandelions, among others in my garden. If you walk along either creek between March and November, you'll see an amazing variety.

Norristown used to have better skies for stargazing than we do now. We have a lot of ambient light around town, from our sports fields and streetlights and the spotlights that everyone seems to have in their backyards these days. We need them for security at the moment, so until we figure out the crime problem, the light is here to stay. Even so, I can still see a bunch of constellations from my backyard, and we don't have so many tall buildings that the moon is blocked. The brightest lights in the sky are often planets, and with a pair of decent binoculars, you can see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. Meteor showers are a bit harder to see in our town, but not impossible if the skies are very clear. And once in a while, a comet comes around--the next one, if it doesn't fizzle out around the sun, will be visible the week of Thanksgiving. The clearest skies and brightest stars are in the wintertime, if you can stand the cold. You can find all kinds of stargazing info online. This is a great family activity. Might also be nice to have some community stargazing nights next summer, maybe in one of the parks or Eisenhower's field, if we can get the outside lights turned off.

So take advantage of Norristown's outdoor classrooms. It's free. What your kids learn with you will help them in their science classes. If your child learns to appreciate nature when they're, say, 7 to 10 years old, even as a teenager or adult, they aren't going to forget, and they'll teach their kids. Our diverse natural environment is an asset to this town, one of our greatest educational resources. We need to pass it on to future generations.

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