A few years ago, the Children’s Nature Institute moved its headquarters from a rustic outpost in Franklin Canyon to the very urban Pico-Union neighborhood with the mission of raising awareness of the nature that exists in the urban world. They also started taking kids and their families on urban nature hikes — in their own neighborhoods. The Institute also takes nearly 20,000 kids, ages three to eight, into nature and has “Wondermobiles” that bring nature to classrooms.
But it’s finding nature in the urban Pico-Union neighborhood that is the specialty of Araceli Perez, the Children’s Nature Institute’s in-house educator. She wants kids to notice the nature that is around them, everyday, not just on special days when they go on a field trip or take a trip to the beach.
At first, this seems like a big challenge. It’s hardly pastoral at Vermont and 20th, near the 10 Freeway overpass. There’s loud music booming from a flea market in a parking lot across the street. The neighborhood is a checkerboard of both neatly tended lawns and homes next to others that are neglected.
But parents in this neighborhood want to find the nature here, and share it with their kids. “Sometimes, you don’t take the time to see the natural, the nature around us,” says Marta Morales, a mom who brought her daughter on a recent nature walk.
There’s nature here, says Kelly Decker, Executive Director of the Children’s Nature Institute, and learning to see it is critical. She points out a beautiful avocado tree that is growing next to an old television and a discarded rubber tire.
“We encourage them to instead of look away, to look at it,” says Decker. “We’ll use the trash and litter that is on the ground and talk about what’s recyclable, what needs to go into the trash, how can you tell the difference, and then we’ll talk about the natural materials as well. The identification and classification is not only a scientific habit of mind, but its also good for their development.”
Alex Morales, Executive Director of the Children’s Bureau, a non-profit dedicated to finding stable homes for kids and strengthening struggling families, has seen the impact of the Children’s Nature Institute programs. What’s accomplished on the hikes, he says, “is some of the most powerful on the job training for how you start them going in the direction of having warm conversations, teaching moments, and they are just showing up and light bulbs are going off.”
Jody Becker grew up in Southern California and is happy to be a part of KCRW’s Independent Producer’s Project. An award-winning documentary film, radio and print journalist, she was an on-air reporter at Chicago Public Radio for a decade, and frequently contributed to Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times.com and the Atlantic.com, The Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Variety and other newspapers and magazines. She produced and co-wrote the documentary film, Autistic-Like:Graham’s Story, airing on PBS throughout 2011-13. Jody’s reporting in the public interest was recognized with a Knight Fellowship at Yale Law School, where she earned a Master’s Degree in Law. She is also a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Michigan. She lives in Santa Monica with her two young daughters and her husband, Steve Barrett, Director of Outreach, Teaching and Learning at Wildwood School.