By Rosie Spinks
City on a Hill Press Reporter

It happens every year.

After the dormant winter months, ruffled green leaves emerge from the ground ready for harvest in April and May, followed by the vegetable flower heads that sprout with the early summer sun. Summer progresses with a parade of color, as juicy tomatoes, peppers and berries abound. After the hollow, seed-filled watermelons, pumpkins and squash of late summer and early fall, the hearty root crops of autumn are left.

And thus the cycle begins again.

Yet, despite the unfaltering consistency with which this annual growing cycle has unfolded for millions of years, it remains a surprisingly foreign concept to most human consumers.

Knowledge of the natural environment — from food systems, local flora and fauna, and basic ecology — is a fundamental part of the human existence. But in a world where fluorescent-lit supermarkets offer pumpkin in cans and pre-washed salad greens in cellophane bags, humans are becoming increasingly disconnected with the natural world.

Once vital, an environmental awareness and knowledge of the land has become more of a rarity. In its absence, the next generation of youth appear unaware of the vulnerability of the planet and thus much less inclined to take care of it. Erika Perloff, a lifelong educator and naturalist, has worked to bridge this disconnect by providing kids with outdoor exposures.

“One hundred years ago an environmental education wasn’t as necessary because most kids got that just from living,” Perloff said. “If the kids that are going to be in charge of our environment one day don’t understand our environment now, we are going to have problems.”

The apparent disconnect that kids have developed with the environment through a lack of unstructured time spent outdoors has been termed “nature deficit disorder” by author Richard Louv in his book “Last Child in the Woods.” Because of the distractions of plasma screens and Playstation, as well as the fear that some parents have of leaving their children alone in the wilderness, it seems that a natural connection with the outdoors is no longer a given.

“Society is telling kids, unconsciously, that nature is in the past and it really doesn’t count anymore,” Louv said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR). “The future is in electronics and besides, the boogie man is in the woods.”

Bridging the Gap

Because this natural connection with the environment is becoming less common, some people feel that schools and educators must bridge the gap when it comes to kids’ knowledge of the natural world. However, strains on the state education system and an emphasis on the basics of language-arts and math often make science and outdoor education a lower priority.

“Unfortunately, in some schools, it gets left to that one week in sixth grade when you go to outdoor ed. That’s a great week, but it needs to be spread to all the other years,” Perloff said. “It really doesn’t make sense to wait until sixth grade to learn about the environment.”

The Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (AEOE), based in California, provides resources for teachers to become better environmental educators through conferences about facilitating outdoor education. Michael Charnofsky, the public relations and outreach coordinator for AEOE and a UC Santa Cruz alumnus, emphasizes the necessity of taking kids outdoors.

“Environmental education is important so that kids can understand the world they live in and make important lifestyle choices that will protect and conserve our natural resources in the future,” Charnofsky said.

The AEOE is also a coalition member and active supporter of the No Child Left Inside (NCLI) Act. With a broad-based coalition of 1,000 organization members, NCLI seeks federal funding for outdoor education. The legislation emphasizes a climate-change-based education that presents the challenges society must respond to in order to combat global warming. It also includes programs to combat childhood obesity by increasing the amount of time kids spend active outdoors.

As the NCLI Act suggests, studying the environment connects many different fields of study, from art and biology to math and chemistry. This interdisciplinary aspect makes it an invaluable learning tool both inside and outside the classroom.

“So many subjects are interconnected in the natural world, so it’s a great unifier for learning,” Perloff said. “By having some kind of living lab — the ocean, a forest, a garden — kids see those things they’re studying and all that stuff begins to make more sense.”

Living Laboratories

The Life Lab science program, started in Santa Cruz in 1979, is one successful model of environmental outdoor education in practice. It works with schools and trains educators around the country to create outdoor living laboratories where children can study nature. Since 2001, Life Lab’s garden classroom at the UCSC Farm’s Center for Agriculture and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) has introduced thousands of kids to the natural world of compost, food nutrition, and organic agriculture through hands-on field trips.

The activities of the field trips change seasonally and the winter trip consists of three whimsically-named stations: Nuts About Nutrients, Label Lingo and Stone Soup.

The nutrient station demystifies the concept of percent daily value and nutrition labels. Kids are instructed to consider the nutritional contents on food labels and then match them with the body part that might benefit from the ingredients.

“Does this go on the elbow?” asked one curious participant, holding up an empty box of elbow macaroni.

At the label station, kids peer quizzically at the nutrition facts of familiar soda bottles and popsicle boxes and measure out the amount of sugar contained in each serving.

As the kids chop freshly picked vegetables at the “Stone Soup” station, they casually munch on pieces of kale. Despite learning what it was just moments earlier, they enjoy it like it was your average sugary snack.

Amy Carlson, the Life Lab education director, said these field trips demonstrate how adaptable and open-minded kids can be when they make a connection and engage themselves with healthy food and the natural world.

“We never tell kids, ‘Eat this because it’s good for you,’ because that means nothing to them,” Carlson said. “It’s not the recipe — it’s how involved they were in the whole process.”

At lunchtime, steaming bowls of the freshly prepared “stone soup” containing chopped kale, kohlrabi, squash, lentils, cauliflower, broccoli and onions are situated right next to packed lunches of PB&J, Jell-O snack packs and Oreos. The kids appear unfazed as they alternate between bites of the soup and the prepackaged snacks that came from home.

Amy Carlson watches the kids with a smile.

“This is my favorite part,” Carlson said. “If their parents made this [soup] and put it in front of them, they wouldn’t eat it. But since they helped prepare it, it’s a totally different experience.”

A Sense of Place

While most agree that taking kids outdoors for hands-on interaction is an indispensable step when providing an environmental education, an inescapable question quickly emerges: What is wilderness? When it comes to stepping outside the classroom, there is a disparity between what’s found at Life Lab in Santa Cruz and what might be available over the hill in Oakland.

Oakland-based environmental and social activist Van Jones talks about the need to reshape our perception of the environment to include urban areas.

“The environment is everywhere, even if there are no trees around,” Jones said at a student forum at UCSC in February. “We have to be willing to not come up with these educational models that are ‘one size fits all,’ cookie-cutter models.”

Jones contends that the solutions to our ecological problems can and must come from solving the issues associated with urban poverty, such as gang violence and joblessness. He warns against eco-solutions that create a society of “haves” and “have-nots.”

“There’s a connection between a society that thinks we have throwaway species, throwaway resources, and throwaway children,” he said. “Even though they’re different expressions of the same weakness, the solution is the same.”

The Food What?! program, also located at the UCSC Farm, emulates Jones’ emphasis on adaptable education programs for urban youth. Abby Bell, the Food What?! farm manager, explains that the program is all-encompassing, with workshops on farming and cooking skills as well as financial literacy, anger management, nutrition, and media and communication skills.

“We do a lot of group-building exercises and we also always provide food,” Bell said. “High-school kids like to eat, so it’s part of the incentive for them to come and eat good food.”

Other incentives for the participants, many of whom are disadvantaged youth from the alternative education system in Santa Cruz county, include a small stipend for both the after-school spring program and more time-intensive summer program, as well as school credit if needed.

“The food that we cook is healthy and tastes good, so it breaks the stereotype that healthy food is bland and shows that organic food is not just for the rich people that can afford it,” Bell said.

Food What?! is also working toward providing cooking classes for parents as well as food that participants can take home. This will give youth the opportunity to take what they’ve learned and use it beyond the farm gates.

Perloff, who was the Life Lab education director prior to Carlson, explained that as the state of the planet worsens and the need for an environmental awareness becomes more important then ever, children who participate in these programs become the best vessels for percolating knowledge throughout the community, starting with their parents.

“When children are involved, they get the parents involved,” she said. “Parents have told me their kids would never eat broccoli until they grew it themselves.”

As educators, environmentalists, and concerned individuals begin to fill the need for environmental education, most agree that a far-reaching approach — one that doesn’t just appeal to eco-aware citizens — must be at the core of any attempt. Van Jones explained that the passion environmentalists have for improving our planet will never be shared by everyone, but that shouldn’t stop education efforts.

“Find out what they’re passionate about,” Jones said, “and that’s the ecological solution.”