August 25, 2008

Zoo, Montessori Bring Nature to Kids

By Jeri Rowe

When I see birches bend to left and right I like to think some boy's been swinging them.

-- Robert Frost, poet

ASHEBORO -- Thank you, Liz Mann .

I was doing the typical journalism thing -- watching and writing - - when Liz, a 7-year-old from Pinehurst, handed me her latest creation: a small cup full of sand, packed hard and leveled out, right to the edge of the lip.

"Would you like some tea?" she asked me, a gap-toothed smile spread wide across her freckled face.

Of course, I accepted. Even without cream and sugar.

But let me explain.

Two days ago, I hung out inside the Mud Cafe at the North Carolina Zoo. By standing there, I stepped into Liz's imaginary world, a restaurant she called Pizza Hut, in which she served food made from a horse trough full of sand.

And maybe that's it.

Our next generation needs to dig into the sand, collect a few stones, pick up a stick -- or even build a catapult to shoot pumpkins into the air -- so their imaginations can reach the moon.

I figured that out when I danced with nature this week. I wrote how a former newspaper columnist had become nature's new evangelist and how a local camp director had become nature's latest teacher.

They both said the same thing. Our next generation -- preschoolers to high school students -- is overscheduled, overweight and oversaturated with technology, and its members have forgotten the fun of romping through the woods. We parents haven't helped.

So, in steps the N.C. Zoo.

After getting stymied by state legislators this summer, the zoo will soon begin raising $2.8 million to help create a 4-acre classroom, complete with caves, gardens and frogs in a stream.

That is, if the zoo finds the funds. But I'm anxiety-free with those odds. By as early as fall 2010, the zoo will turn the KidZone - - the spot of the Mud Cafe -- into what it calls the Children's Nature Zoo.

Meanwhile, zoo educators and the N.C. Zoological Society, the zoo's support organization, have rounded up a diverse crew of educators, executives and environmentalists. Their goal: find ways to get inside kids -- and their families -- outside.

So, the zoo is serious. And so is Greensboro Montessori School.

For the past 12 years, the school has used nature as part of its curriculum. Students have grown everything from artichokes to Asian pears on their campus off Horse Pen Creek Road.

Every six weeks, on 47 acres in Oak Ridge, its middle school students spend several nights in the woods to study insects and understand a bit of physics -- with a pumpkin and a student-built catapult.

So, it's easy to see why the 370-student private school has given every family there a copy of Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder."

And it's also easy to see why the school, with the help of a few sponsors, will pay Louv $10,000 for two days of his time next month.

Louv, a former columnist at the San Diego Union-Tribune, started a grass-roots revolution with stats and stories that give present- day images to the old words of poet Robert Frost.

But there's something else. I see it when I talk to Randy Fulk. He's the zoo's director of education. He parks me by the big model of the Children's Nature Zoo just outside his office and talks about this need for "loose parts." That is, stones and sticks and sand and water.

Then, someone tugs at his leg. It's Ella Lindsay, his 22-month- old daughter. He picks her up and continues.

"It all gets back to loose parts," he said. "That's what releases your imagination."

So, thank you, Liz. I get it.

Contact Jeri Rowe at 373-7374 or [email protected]

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