Nature Education

Environmental Education in the City
Includes Listing of Environmental Learning Centers in the Twin Cities
–Erin Hendel

In the heart of the sprawling Twin Cities metro area, there exist many well-hidden green spaces where you can join other area residents on a full moon canoeing excursion, feed wildlife, help biologists with animal field studies, take a class on Giant Cecropia Moths, or learn about gardening with native plants. These activities comprise just a brief sample of the environmental education events going on around the Twin Cities in a single month. Along with a dynamic science museum, our area boasts over seventeen Environmental Learning Centers (ELCs), where staff and volunteer naturalists lead excursions and teach classes.

Environmental education’s goal is to promote knowledge and understanding of the natural world among its human citizens through discussion and meaningful experiences. Even in this large urban area, we are surrounded by wildlife and plants. We are still part of an ecosystem, and we do have a relationship with the natural world. Even in the city, we can still open our eyes and ears to the environment.

Go on a nature walk, join in a canoe trip and observe birds and animals in the neighborhood. Nature education can take place anywhere – at home, in the classroom, on a walk around the neighborhood, at an environmental learning center or on a camping trip in one of Minnesota’s many wilderness areas. In any form, environmental educators provide people with meaningful experiences in nature. Environmental education has also entered the traditional classroom. Many teachers use resources such as Project Learning Tree, an activity guide that combines lessons about the environment with math, science, reading and writing. From kindergarten forward, students can hone their analytical, teamwork, and research skills through activities and games about forests, wetlands, animals and pollution.

Environmental education is not a new idea. Under the subject of “nature education,” library books date back to the mid-1800s. As long as people have been interacting with their environment and have shared their knowledge with others, environmental education has taken place. What is relatively new is the way in which it fits into our lifestyle. Today, most people in our society have lifestyles that conceal the ways in which we are dependent on our natural environment. We must actually work to open our eyes to the world around us.

For this reason, environmental education is one of the cornerstones of sustainable communities. A child with no understanding of nature will most likely become an adult who does not value the environment. Accordingly, a person who has had meaningful experiences in nature and who understands how he or she is intimately connected to the natural world will want to preserve it.

Environmental education benefits the community in several ways. Aside from promoting sustainability, nature excursions can build community. People share experiences and make connections to one another. Shared green space also helps to create a sense of togetherness. For children and adults, nature education experiences or challenges can build confidence. Wilderness Inquiry, a national organization with an office in the Twin Cities runs wilderness trips such as kayak, canoe and dogsled excursions for people of all abilities, particularly for those with disabilities.

For children and adults, nature education experiences can help develop confidence and a sense of wonder. Some of my most striking memories come from experiences in the outdoors. While volunteering at the Audubon Center of the Northwoods this past winter, I helped a group of fifth-grade students from an urban St. Paul school on their first snowshoe hike. Most of these kids had never been on snowshoes before, and few thought they would find much to see in the middle of the woods on a bitter cold, snowy afternoon. During the three-hour hike, they examined bobcat paw prints and learned the names of trees. I found myself with a group of three students who were cold and tired and frustrated with their awkward footwear. As we rounded a bend in the trail, we came upon two does. Both kids and animals froze and stared at each other. After a long unblinking moment, the deer started and bounded away through the woods. When they returned to the warm lodge, the exhausted kids couldn’t wait to tell their teachers and classmates what they had seen. These kids challenged themselves and learned about what valuable surprises can be found even in a small area of wilderness. Hopefully, that’s a lesson they won’t soon forget.

You can get involved by taking a class, going on an excursion or volunteering to help out with environmental education events. Most of the Twin Cities area ELCs offer weekend or weekday classes, workshops, outings and multi-day camp events for children, families, and adults. Many other ELCs cover the rest of the state, including the well-known Wolf Ridge Center and Audubon Center of the Northwoods. To find out about activities in your area, contact your local ELC or check out the Sharing Environmental Education Knowledge (SEEK) web site. This site displays a two-month calendar of environmental education events for every region of the state.

Environmental education is healthy for people and the environment. In these times of the internet and television, we need to be reminded that we all live in a community and that our community exists in relation to the environment.

Environmental Learning Centers in the Twin Cities:

Bell Museum of Natural History
Gordon Murdock, Museum Curator
10 Church St. SE
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, MN 55455

Dodge Nature Center
365 Marie Ave W
W. St. Paul, MN 55118

Lee & Rose Warner Center
15375 Norell Ave. North
Marine on St. Croix, MN 55047

St. Croix National Scenic Riverway
P.O. Box 708
St. Croix Falls, WI 54024

Springbrook Nature Center
100 85th Ave NE
Fridley, MN 55432

Staring Lake Outdoor Center
8080 Mitchell Road
Eden Prairie, MN 55344-4485

University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum
3675 Arboretum DR
Chaska, MN 55318

Vinland Center
PO Box 308
Loretto, MN 55447

Westwood Hills Environmental Education Center
8300 W Franklin Ave
St. Louis Park, MN 55426

Anoka County Parks Department Education Centers:

Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park
East Visitor Center
9750 Egret Blvd
Coon Rapids, MN 55433

Wargo Nature Center
7701 Main Street
Hugo, MN 55038

Hennepin Parks Outdoor Education Centers:

Eastman Nature Center
13351 Elm Creek Rd.
Osseo, MN 55369

French Regional Park
12605 County Road 9
Plymouth, MN 55441
Naturalist: 763-559-7932

Lake Minnetonka Visitor Center
Lake Minnetonka Regional Park
4610 County Road 44
Minnetrista, MN 55364

Richardson Nature Center
8737 E Bush Lake Road
Bloomington, MN 55438

West Coon Rapids Dam Visitors Center
Suburban Hennepin Regional Park District
10360 West River Rd
Brooklyn Park, MN 55444

What You Can Do* Get involved.

* Learn from others and share your knowledge.

* Support and enjoy your local ELC.

* Get out there and appreciate Minnesota’s amazing natural diversity.

* Take a walk in the woods and take a friend!