Can libraries connect children and adults to nature, and thereby build a psychologically healthier community? You bet. "Today, via a library's outdoor learning space, librarians are participating in the growing movement to connect children with the environment," write Tracy Delgado-LaStella and Sandra Feinberg in this month's issue of American Libraries magazine.
The excellent piece describes the efforts of Middle Country Public Library in Centereach, New York, which has created The Nature Explorium.
In collaboration with the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and Long Island Nature Collaborative for Kids (LINCK), the library converted an adjacent 5000-square foot area into a outdoor learning environment, "including a climbing/crawling area, messy materials area, building area, nature art area, music and performance area, planting area, gathering/conversation place, reading area, and water feature."
The program encourages a balance of programmed and informal activities, and The Nature Exploratorium is watched by library staff (pages or clerks) and every child is required to have a caregiver on the grounds. From the beginning, the idea "struck a chord with many supporters," including some new donors.
Indeed, libraries are a perfect place to gently and safely help families connect to nature. Libraries exist in every kind of neighborhood; they already serves as community hubs; they're often supported by Friends groups; they have existing resources (nature books); they're often more flexible than schools; and they're known for being safe.
Perhaps we need a national library campaign to connect people to the nature of their communities -- think of them as, well, naturbraries. One benefit: libraries could expand the public constituency for libraries, as they offer information about the health and learning benefits of nature time.
Recently, Booklist, the American Library Association's book review journal, asked me for suggestions for how libraries and Friends of the Library groups could apply what I call "the Nature Principle" -- which is also the name of a soon-to-be-released book that I hope will help build the children and nature movement, by expanding it to the lives of adults. I shared some ideas with Booklist, specific to libraries, that I've been speaking and writing about for a while. Here are some of those, and a few more:
- Give families the information they need to get organized. Libraries can become proponents of family nature clubs, providing free tool kits (the Children & Nature Network offers this online, in English and Spanish) and encouraging the clubs to meet at the library. And they can offer families information about online resources for outdoor activities, such as Nature Rocks. Another good resource is C&NN's feature, Where Nature Meets Story.
- Offer outdoor tools. Libraries can offer outdoor gear for checkout by children. Some libraries are already doing this. Brother Yusuf Burgess, a member of the C&NN board, reports that libraries in his community are offering fishing rods for checkout.
- Build bioregional identity. Expand regional natural history sections, offer lectures by local nature experts, and provide a meeting place for people who want to explore and discuss the nature of their own region. Libraries can become regional information hubs of outdoor activities, offering area maps, pamphlets on nearby nature, brochures for hiking clubs, and registries for community gardens.
- Encourage backyard biodiversity and the renaturing of community. Partner with natural history museums and botanical gardens to hand out free packets of seeds to families who want to help bring back butterfly and bird migration routes. Convene groups of architects, urban designers, educators, physicians and other professionals to plan the re-naturing of the surrounding community.
- And, libraries across the country can create outdoor reading and learning centers, where, as Middle Country Public Library's Web page puts it, "children will discover the gift of nature." And so will adults.
Richard Louv is the author of "The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder" (Algonquin, Spring, 2011) and "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder". He is founding chairman of the Children and Nature Network.