Keeping Busy

If there’s one upside to a dismal economy, it’s that it gives you a chance to focus on things you might otherwise put off. I’ve been able to take advantage of several interesting ventures that I know will be a worthwhile endeavor, and good economy or bad, I want to keep these projects on the forefront of my ‘to do’ list!

After several conversations with different individuals throughout the city, I realized that the ‘children and nature’ movement spawned by author Richard Louv is ready to spring to action here in Houston. There are so many wonderful organizations and individuals that are doing great things to combat ‘nature deficit disorder’, and it’s become apparent that if they all joined together in their efforts they could be even more effective! After studying the Call to Action Plan issued by the national Children and Nature Network, I gathered up a group of core organizations to form the Houston Children and Nature Coalition. This new group will spearhead a collective effort to spread the message about how nature deficit disorder is affecting our quality of life, how it can be addressed, and what’s being done in Houston to re-introduce nature to urban youth and families. In September one of the core group members, Jenny Garrett from Houston Arboretum, and I attended the national Children and Nature Network’s Grassroots Gathering to meet other groups like ours and exchange information and ideas about how to be most effective in our region. It was tremendously inspiring to hear of the success stories that other groups shared, and Jenny and I returned armed with a wealth of new contacts, information, ideas, and energy! One of our first steps will be to facilitate a ‘mission and goals’ planning session for the core group members, where we will brainstorm the unique opportunities and constraints that the Houston metro area will face in our campaign. For example, one tremendous opportunity lies in the HISD system, which has a daily attendance of over half a million schoolchildren. What if the H-CNC focused part of its effort on advocating and implementing policies that allowed more ‘nature’ in the schoolyards? That would automatically provide a dramatic impact on nature deficit disorder to half a million children! A tremendous victory! But in order to get there we’ll need a clear plan of action, and we’re hoping to create that plan (with the help of a facilitator) very soon!

In a similar capacity, I’m also volunteering to help plan HISD’s Annual Sustainability Summit, hosted by the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Educator’s Exchange. This year’s summit will focus on how ‘going green’ helps sustain a school’s entire foundation: greening the schoolgrounds, greening the building, greening a future generation. We’ll be planning educational workshops, exhibits, and speakers to help HISD teachers develop and implement green practices within their schools. Being a landscape designer, I hope to showcase how sustainable landscape practices can not only improve the environmental health of the schoolgrounds, but also provide a valuable hands-on learning experience. Elements such as native habitats, rainwater harvesting, and bioswales are just a few examples of practices that could really ‘bring home’ some of the science concepts that students are learning inside the classroom.

I also took a bit of time to write a technical white paper relating the elements of nature deficit disorder to the benefits of ‘nature play’ and what sort of design considerations should be taken when creating children’s outdoor play spaces. Too often we see playgrounds consisting of bare turfgrass with a piece of huge plastic play equipment slapped down, without any thought to children’s need for creative free play rather than purely physical play. Where are the spaces to daydream, play pretend, build a fort, collect dandelions? These are the spaces most of us remember growing up, and yet today’s realm of play presents an entirely different scenario. I hope to spread the message that so-called ‘playgrounds’ should also include natural elements that allow for self-regulated free play, directed by a child’s own imagination.

Whew! Lots of things yet to be done, people to see, events to plan! This should keep me busy no matter what the economic forecast, and I’m grateful that ARC has encouraged and supported me in all my endeavors.

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