In an increasingly urbanized world, nature centers -- including several in the Birmingham area -- help children and adults reconnect, or perhaps connect for the first time,with their environment.
David Frings, director of the new Oak Mountain Interpretive Center (OMIC) at Oak Mountain State Park, calls urban denizens who are estranged from nature “pavement people.” Frings offers a prescription for this malady, and it’s the same one offered by most nature centers – guided exposure to the environment that is hands-on, educational and fun.
“Science and nature can be scary to a lot of people, even teachers who didn’t have the right people present it to them,” according to Frings, a life-long nature lover with a degree in geology from UAB. “If you don’t get out there, if you never see it, you won’t know what the experience is like, and it’s less likely that you want to preserve it.”
The OMIC is not yet fully operational, Frings says, but will soon offer environmental education for children and adults, including high school and college students.
A similar philosophy drives the efforts of Henry Hughes, director of education at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, which hosts 11,000 school kids each year. These field trips deal with such topics as Alabama woodlands and plant propagation, but their content is perhaps less important than the fact that the kids are going outside. “Many of them will not experience a true forest except at the Gardens,” Hughes says. “This freestyle experiential aspect of nature is what resonates with kids. They remember being there and just feeling the woods.”
“Studies show that kids spend 80 percent of their time indoors,” according to Roald Hazelhoff, the director of the Southern Environmental Center (SEC) at Birmingham-Southern College. “They’ve become strangers to nature.” So how does the SEC generate interest in the environment, particularly the urban environment – their main focus – among the 12,000 school kids who visit the facility annually?
“We use bells and whistles,” Hazelhoff says. “Kids get flushed down a giant toilet slide. They lift up a week’s worth of trash that they would generate at home. It makes the environment fun. It’s provocative. It gives them stuff they’ve never thought, like the fact that leaving your computer on all night creates pollution.”
Other area nature centers and environmental groups also use interactivity or direct, personal experience to help make a lasting impact on visitors.
At the Alabama Wildlife Center at Oak Mountain State Park, visitors watch through a one-way glass as injured birds, mammals, and reptiles are rehabilitated, and the Treetop Nature Trail offers close-up views of hawks and owls in natural habitat enclosures.
Aldridge Botanical Gardens offers a variety of hands-on environmental learning experiences for children and adults on their lush grounds in Hoover.
Ruffner Mountain Nature Center in Birmingham hosts numerous school groups on its 1000-acre site and will soon open an education pavilion, an animal exhibits hall, and the Tree Top Visitor’s Center.
The Cahaba River Society has taken thousands of area students on canoe trips and stream walks along the Cahaba.
The McWane Science Center downtown offers a permanent exhibit about the Cahaba and its rich diversity called River Journey, part of the World of Water Aquarium.
The Coosa River Science School at the Alabama 4-H Center in Columbiana provides hands-on experiences to all age groups in its new $5 million Environmental Science Education Center, the first building in Alabama to receive a gold rating from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System.