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:
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.