February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Children Are Being Connected to Nature Right in the Library

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder… he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

– Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

A “back-to-nature” movement is afoot at schools and libraries across the country. Forest schools, also called “nature schools” for preschool and kindergarten-aged children, are  popping up across North America. At the same time, public librarians are designing unique, nature-based opportunities for families to develop a deeper connection with their environment. Here’s an overview of the trend, along with advice for librarians looking to bring it to their library.

The rise of forest schools

Starting in the 1950s, many European countries adopted the early childhood practice of child-led inquiry in outdoor environments. Snow, wind, rain, or shine, children are outside with their instructors engaging in free play. With no rigid academic standards, are these students behind when they enter grade school? Far from it. Many of the countries that implement a forest school model, such as Switzerland and those in Scandinavia, are some of the smartest and happiest countries in the world.

Now, this movement is starting to take off here at home. Lia Grippo, founder, director, and preschool lead teacher of Wild Roots Forest School in Santa Barbara, CA, believes the growth of nature-based schools has been fueled by both educators and parents. “Recent trends in early-years education have moved towards a focus on acquiring and drilling direct academic skills and facts, and away from play and alternatives that honor the needs of young children for near constant motion and play. One might say [parents] are looking to give children a more natural childhood.”

Laurel Fynes, kindergarten teacher in Mississauga, Ont., has found support for alternative pedagogies such as nature-based education. The ability to share practices through social media has been a motivating force behind the growth of nature-based education. Both Grippo and Fynes point to the global success of Richard Louv’s book, The Last Child in the Woods (Algonquin, 2008), as a catalyst in the nature education movement.

Landmark work ignites awareness of “nature deficit”

“Last Child in the Woods touched on existing feelings in our culture on children and nature, as well propagating and normalizing the idea that healthy children require nature and nature needs children,” says Grippo. The book is the platform in which Louv introduced the now widely used term “Nature-Deficit Disorder.” Nature-Deficit Disorder is a constellation of behavioral, physical, emotional, and psychological problems that occur in children and adults when they are estranged from the outdoor world. Louv focuses on many of the alarming negatives when children do not have the opportunity to experience nature, but also highlights the overwhelming gains nature has on a child’s learning and overall well-being. As public libraries evolve in the variety of services they offer, providing the opportunity to connect their communities with nature is a perfect fit.

Bringing nature into the library

You don’t have to be outside to introduce nature to children. That might not even be an option for your location. I set up The Nature Center, a touch table full of natural objects such as leaves, tree branches covered in lichen, seedpods, and feathers. It turned out to be a valuable and fun hands-on experience for my urban patrons.

For the past two summers, Cate Levinson, youth services librarian of Niles Public Library in Niles, IL and her colleagues have been hosting monarch caterpillars in their “Monarch House” for patron observation. The structure is a simple wood-framed cube with a mesh top and fiberglass windows on all sides. It can house two to five caterpillars at a time while they undergo their metamorphosis into butterflies. “I would say [Monarch House] has been an extremely successful learning experience for patrons,” Levinson remarked. “But the other incredible thing for us librarians is how much we had learned about monarchs from one year to the next. We didn’t realize how much knowledge we’d acquired the previous year until [the monarchs] were back on the floor. We were able to answer patrons’ questions, point out subtle phenomena, and predict behavior without having to look it up.”

Levinson is also the creator of an innovative program that brings the stars inside the library with Armchair Astronomy. While patrons sit in a darkened room, they revel in a beautiful slideshow of galaxies, nebulae, and astrophotography while listening to Levinson narrate each image. Armchair Astronomy is prepared in an accessible format for patrons ranging in age from kindergarten to senior citizen. It may be harder to see the stars outside in a heavily-populated area like this Chicago suburb, yet the program still prompts patrons to look up at night and marvel.

Strength in numbers

Finding organizations and individuals to partner with can broaden the scope of nature programming and provide crucial support.

The Arrowhead Library System in Mountain Iron, MN has extended their programming into the great outdoors with the wide-scale outdoor enterprise, The Great Outdoors @ your library. Partners range from the local parks department, to the University of Wisconsin–Rock County, to a nearby nature center, and many more. The library holds regular programming for families at several branches, but also at their partner locations. The site has a long list of local outdoor areas such as trails, lakes, and gardens for patrons to explore.

I discovered that teaming up with a local farm made for an ideal match. I was searching for a storytime setting outside of the library. Farm Stand Storytime created an outlet for children to foster a healthy curiosity of the natural world. During and after storytime, children could enjoy sights, smells, and sounds that they couldn’t experience otherwise.

Library design with nature in mind

In collaboration with the Children & Nature Network, the Sun Ray Natural Library in St. Paul, MN was a renovation project designed around nature. Branch manager Rebecca Ryan calls it a “Nature Smart Library.” The entire library is designed and themed around a neighboring park.  A custom-built alcove is a main attraction in the children’s room. It overlooks the easily accessible reading garden, other library gardens, and the adjoining local park, where a good amount of programming takes place.

The reading garden at Sun Ray Library.

The reading garden at the Sun Ray Natural Library.

One of the many nature-based programs offered is the circulation of adventure backpacks designed for group activities. Organized by theme and age, the backpacks are equipped with 15–20 magnifying glasses, a first aid kit, bug boxes, and field guides to the flora and fauna of Minnesota. “These [backpacks] have been really popular. It’s something tangible for families and groups to check out and explore,” Ryan explains.

The Nature Explorium at Middle Country Public Library is a designated outdoor space for free play for children and families. Equipped with a water table, stage, building area, garden, and climbing station, each area connects kids to nature via a different  experience. The Nature Explorium site provides an extensive list of nature-based programs. Tracy LaStella, Coordinator for Youth Services at Middle Country Public Library, adds, “By providing this outdoor area for the community, the library offers a unique way to connect literacy, learning, and an appreciation for nature as a regular part of the library visit.”

The Pollinator Garden at Sun Ray Natural Library

The Pollinator Garden at Sun Ray Natural Library

Looking at a smaller scale initiative with just as much heart, the Wallingford Public Library has a space named the Nature Corner, furnished with resources such as nature books and field guides especially for kids, their families, and educators to check out. It’s just another example of how nature-based projects can come in all shapes and sizes.

Fostering a love of nature through story

Don’t have a nature-inspired area in your library, nor a park nearby? Start by fostering a love of nature through story. Storytime is an excellent platform to introduce children to the natural world. Through exposure to nature via story, children make their own inferences about the world they see around them. Even if you aren’t well versed in natural sciences, don’t let that deter you. Grappo advises, “Wonder and connection should always precede facts in the arena of nature education with children.  The relationship, even one developed through story alone, will have much value for a child, inspiring them to dig deeper, look and listen more carefully, and to care for the natural world.  In working towards ecological literacy with children, stories should always trump facts.”

Sharing personal stories about nature in your own life will also spark a child’s imagination. Take a moment to talk about the weather, a bird you saw on the way to the grocery store, or a rock or leaf found near your home. Fynes recommends that librarians look to their collection for inspiration and let those books be your guide: “I think there are already so many wonderful books in circulation that provide a great start…Books that inspire young and old alike to peer closely, to observe a tree in all seasons, to look at a drop of water, to follow a snail or a bird for a day, to turn a rock over.”

The next step, explains Fynes, would be to curate invitations to explore natural artifacts based on those books: a bowl of water and droppers, a collection of shells or stones, pressed and fresh leaves or flowers, a terrarium with magnifiers and/or mirrors, a platter of seeds with a mortar and pestle for grinding. ”Invite young children to be aware of all the information their senses offer them, and then give them poetic language to name those observations,” concludes Fynes.

Wisdom begins in wonder

We can learn a lot from the pedagogy of forest school practitioners and nature-minded initiatives of librarians. Early literacy models like Every Child Ready to Read are successful guides in hundreds of library systems. Could we create a similar easy-to-use model for ecological literacy? What would it look like? Nature has a profound effect on a child’s social, emotional, and educational development, and in the growing demand for that connection, libraries have the power to facilitate these natural experiences.


Rebecca Zarazan Dunn is a Library Journal Mover & Shaker and a contributor to Library as Incubator Project with her popular storytime art series, Pages to Projects. She blogs at Sturdy for Common Things.