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Sharing Nature's Precious Legacy

Boomers can help raise a new generation of citizen scientists

By Phyllis L. Cohen

Prolific conservationist Rachel Carson, of Silent Spring  fame, urged that developing a child's inborn sense of wonder requires an adult to rediscover his or herr own joy and mystery about the world we live in. Perhaps no generation can pass on the legacy of nature better than boomers — parents, grandparents and friends who can share their own outdoor experiences and childhood connections; adventures that are rarely experienced today.

A family looking at nature with binoculars. Next Avenue
Credit: Courtesy Cornell Lab of Ornithology | Vicky Carwile

Boomers have lived through the rise of the environmental movement to save our planet and the birth of the first Earth Day. They've also enjoyed the simple pleasures of lazy, unplanned afternoons exploring their own backyard; this puts them in a unique position to mentor younger generations about preserving the natural world. Happily, while teaching younger generations to be citizen scientists, older adults can develop new outdoor skills as well — exploring activities that enrich their own lives.

Overcoming a Disconnection to Nature

The Children and Nature Network, a nonprofit created to support and encourage reconnecting children with nature, offers a directory of countless ways for older and younger generations to rekindle the joys and health benefits of the outdoors.

Richard Louv, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the network, includes 500 of these activities in his book, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life.

 "The most popular activities shared between generations varies, but the greater the biodiversity, the greater the psychological benefits, and the more restorative to the environment," says Louv. "The quality of the experience also depends on how direct the experience is."

Louv says that traditional activities like hiking and camping continue to be popular among the generations. "But we also see the emergence and increased popularity of wildcrafting (harvesting plants), wildwatching and cloudspotting. An easy way to connect with nature is birding—urban, suburban, rural or wilderness," he adds.

A New Level of Focus for Citizen Scientists

Helping boomers and younger generations overcome our country's disconnection to nature together is not lost on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., a collaborating partner with PBS's American Spring LIVE. Bringing bird-focused citizen science to a new level, the Lab offers free access to a host of useful self-directed and planned resources that appeal to all generations and experience levels of birders.

The Celebrate Urban Birds project encourages nature enthusiasts to garden, create art and spend time observing neighborhood birds—and as citizen scientists, they can send the data online to the Cornell Lab. Kits for this program are available in both English and Spanish.

An older adult walking on a trail outside in a garden. Next Avenue
Richard Louv  |  Credit: Courtesy of Richard Louv

Other participatory programs include BirdSleuth for students in K-12, and FeederWatch, offering a way to keep a tally throughout the season which can help protect the species. In addition to the Great Backyard Bird Count, sightings can also be posted onto satellite maps, which allow young people to track their neighborhood bird population.

The Younger Generation of Birders

Rick Bonney, director of program development with the Lab and involved there since 1974, shared that bird enthusiasts have typically been older, in their fifties and sixties. "That said, a younger generation of new birders has evolved over the last few years, especially through the Lab's popular eBird initiative," he says.

The eBird project offers anyone interested in sharing their personal bird observation experiences with NASA habitat data to make an impact on bird conservation. Finding bird hot spots, sharing photos and bird recordings through this successful avian social network has created a database of over half a billion sightings and bird recordings recorded, directly impacting conservation strategies.

"The internet has enabled anyone access to digital birding, attracting a younger demographic, and it's become very competitive," Bonney adds. "Users create personal profiles to publicize the birds they've observed and the activities they've participated in. The program includes tens of thousands of birding profiles globally."


Hike, Explore and Capture Nature

Other multigenerational endeavors that explore nature can be planned or self-driven. The Appalachian Mountain Club offers guided family adventures that include hut-to-hut hiking, biking and rafting experiences for all ages and physical levels of ability.

Geocaching, a part hiking, part treasure-hunting sport, is a fun exploration of nature using your smart phone's GPS coordinates, or a device to locate where a cache, or small treasure, is hidden. Geocachers clamor for ideal places to seek and find their cache; the woods, filled with fallen logs, hollow tree stumps and rocky crannies are popular gathering places. This unique hide-and-seek hobby can be accomplished at any pace, and while finding a trinket is fun, the thrill of the hunt together encourages observing and preserving the forests explored along the way.

Older adults participating in outdoor photography in tandem with younger generations helps both see the natural world from a new perspective.

Older adults participating in outdoor photography in tandem with younger generations helps both see the natural world from a new perspective. If you live near each other, you can visit and photograph a national park together. If you are 62 or older, you can purchase a lifetime pass for a minimal fee (and kids under age 16 are admitted for free).

Photography can bridge the gap to stay connected if you don't live nearby. Grandkids and grandfriends get a kick out of seeing photos of outdoor activities that were commonplace when you were their age, such as planting a garden, camping or beekeeping. You could revive a family tradition by sharing a nature-focused activity from your childhood. Or create a photographic challenge, like "take photos of five kinds of leaves "or "ten butterflies you've observed," sharing your discoveries online to bring out the scientist in each of you.

A terrific way to incite wonder in our natural world is to explore the nighttime sky. For anyone whose child or grandchild has asked the question, "How many stars are in the sky?" stargazing can be done with or without a telescope. Identifying phases of the moon can be done with the naked eye, while identifying constellations on a clear night can be done with the same binoculars used for birdwatching. Night sky exploration can lead to planetarium visits and a deep love of the cosmos.

Opportunities for Discussion Between Generations

Jeanne Moran, a Pennsylvania-based author and grandmother of three, ages three to eight, enjoys finding teaching opportunities about nature through impromptu walks in the park. Observations are made, starting conversations about their environment.

"Last spring we were throwing stones in a pond and we heard a bird squawking in a tree," Moran  recalls. "Apparently a fledgling was trying to fly for the first time and the mama bird was warning us away. I asked them, 'What would your mommy do if you were in danger?' It was a great opportunity for discussion."

Like many grandmothers, Moran enjoys accompanying her two eldest grandchildren to science museums, local dinosaur digs and planetariums.

"Sometimes an adventure in stargazing or gardening is launched from books we read together, especially the Magic Treehouse series of books," adds Moran. "When I'm on vacation without them, I'll send pictures of a turtle hospital in Florida or bring home seashells from walks on the beach, prompting more discussions."

She's proud of the connection that her grandkids have with the outdoors, but she realizes that they are still young.

"Right now, they're fascinated with all the sensations of their environment, listening to the birds and neighborhood critters, peeking down every storm drain they pass by and observing," says Moran. "At this age, I see no disconnection to nature — I only hope that once they reach their teens I've helped instill a permanent curiosity that won't be overshadowed by distractions."

‘Part of a Larger World’

Louv reminds us how important this intergenerational mission to connect with nature is.

"Without knowing the natural world first-hand, children's knowledge about the environment is mostly abstract. Contact with nature allows children to see they're part of a larger world that includes them. As we know, if children grow up with little contact with nature, they're not likely to pass along a positive connection to outdoors to their children," he says.

According to Louv, past research has shown that adults who identify themselves as environmentalists or conservationists almost always had some transcendent experiences in the natural world.

"What happens if that personal experience virtually disappears?" he says. "There will always be conservationists and environmentalists, but if we don't turn this trend around, they'll increasingly carry nature in their briefcases, not in their hearts. And that's a very different relationship."

Phyllis L. Cohen has been an executive recruiter for Fortune 50 firms for over 25 years as well as a freelance writer specializing in how boomers navigate their careers. Read More
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