I was out in the yard with Mia the other day and she had captured some kind of cricket-looking creature in her bug jar.
“What is it?” she asked me.
“A bug,” I answered, holding the jar as far away from my body as possible.
“I’m going to ask Yaya,” she replied smartly. “She knows everything nature.”
She’s not wrong.
My mom is a walking encyclopedia of nature. I sent her this photo of some holes Dan found under a tree in our yard a few weeks back and she texted me literally seconds later “Oh, you must have an ant lion – so cool!”
Her response cracked me up – first because of the fact that she was able to identify an insect that nobody else I’ve ever met has ever heard of based on a picture of a small hole. And second, that her response to a creature called a fucking “ant lion” is “so cool” and not “call the exterminator NOW.”
She’s a rare breed, indeed.
And one that’s in danger of going extinct. Not just because I failed to inherit her love of the outdoors – but because as a society we are failing to teach our kids the simplest things about coexisting with nature.
You see, my mom has devoted basically her entire adult life to teaching kids about the outdoors. She has worked for more than 30 years as an educator at a place called The Hitchcock Center, an organization that essentially teaches kids how to play outside.
I’m not kidding. That’s really what they do. They have all kinds of programs and preschools and curriculums for teachers to help them teach kids how to exist in nature.
Because that’s where we’re at right now. We have to send our kids to special schools to learn how to play outdoors.
Just let that one sink in for a second.
Kids today can read by the time they graduate preschool but half of them have never held a cricket. Or climbed a tree. Or understand why flat rocks skip over water but round ones go “kerplunk.” Or how rocks end up flat to begin with or where seaglass comes from or what happens to the atmosphere when cows fart.
You guys, imagine if kids knew. If they learned how to count by tossing rocks in a stream. Or do math by calculating tree rings. Imagine if kids loved physics as much as they loved recess – because they were one and the same. Imagine if they cared about our actual planet as much as the virtual ones they inhabit on their iPads.
That’s what my mom does.
She takes kids outside and lets them learn from mother nature. How to play, how to count, how to read, to understand, to be kind, to dig deeper, to try again, to brush it off, to find a solution, to feel important – to feel empowered to create change.
Even though it pays like $5 an hour and requires wiping snot off little kids’ faces that aren’t yours and being compassionate with parents who wear high heels for a hiking field trip, and staying eternally optimistic in a climate that is well, melting.
My mom can’t operate an iPhone to save her life but she’s the smartest person I know. And the first person I would pick if I had to choose teams on Survivor.
The work she does is literally saving the future. Both the planet – and the people who will inhabit it.
So this is the part where you come in.
In the fall of 2016, the Hitchcock Center for the Environment (to which my mom has dedicated her entire career) concluded Phase One of its Building for the Future campaign, raising $5.8 million and opening the doors to a beautiful and inspirational, 9,000-square-foot “living” environmental education center.
The net zero energy building (puts our little solar installation to shame) and is one of only a handful in the world to harvest and recycle its own water, use composting toilets, and be constructed with 100% responsibly sourced, nontoxic materials. It is a powerful teaching tool that supports a new approach to achieving environmental literacy in the 21st century.
It’s incredible – and also beautiful. And that’s coming from someone who dry heaves at the thought of compost.
But this incredible, progressive building is still missing one thing. The thing most important to my mom.
An outdoor classroom.
And I’m not talking about the modular kind made out of recycled shipping containers or high density polyethylene play structures made to look like nature.
I’m talking about an outdoor discovery yard where kids actually touch mud and eat dirt.
The Colleen Kelley Nature Play Area will be designed to draw children into unstructured play—with tree stumps and rocks to climb on; gardens and meadows full of small creatures; and water and mud areas to explore. It will feature natural play structures, log balance beams, a making and tinkering station, a play thicket, a StoryWalk path, and benches and picnic tables where families can gather and moms can yell at their kids for the love of g-d DO NOT track that f&*king mud into my car.
Ok fine, that last part might just be me. Maybe I should just let my mom describe it in her own words:
“I was given an incredible gift as a child from my parents: Every day when I came home from school, they said, ‘Go outside and PLAY—and don’t come home until I ring the dinner bell!’
OUTSIDE, I flop into a pile of half-raked leaves and breathe out the whole day of school; it’s quiet except for birds, and I can hear my steady breathing. I jump up and run to my favorite climbing rock, scramble to the top and jump off… STRENGTH. I spy a shelter of sticks that my friend and I built while playing pioneer women… IMAGINATION. This involved hours of gathering sticks and figuring out how to lean them just right against the tree to make a “house” big enough for the two of us to crawl in to…PROBLEM SOLVING, ENGINEERING. I pound open acorns on a rock and add them to a forest stew I’m making in a hole in the ground—leaves, water, mud and a sprinkle of acorn for garnish… CREATIVITY, TOOLS/TECHNOLOGY. The sun is setting already, and I see blinks of light at the edge of the yard. I get an old jelly jar from dad’s tool bench. Can I catch some of these critters and make a light for my shelter? How do they do that anyway? Do they blink in the day and we don’t see them? WONDER, CURIOSITY.
Fast forward 45 years and I am working at the Hitchcock Center developing nature-based programs and curriculum for families and schools. Programs that meet national standards to help children to be better problem-solvers and critical thinkers, to develop curiosity and wonder, and to practice engineering and design skills. All the while, I am thinking, ‘Go outside and PLAY—and don’t come home until the bell rings!’”
I can’t think of a better way to honor my mom—the incredibly selfless and dedicated educator and bug whisperer that she is—than by helping to bring the Colleen Kelley Nature Play Area to life.
Problem is, it costs like 50k to create and while I got 99 problems, having an extra 50 grand ain’t one of ’em.
So I’m asking for your help. To turn my mom’s dreams and our planet’s future into reality. Whether you have 5, 50, or 50,000 dollars to give – or even if you can’t contribute financially but you’re willing to share this post – please do it.
My parents have raised 30,000 dollars so far, and are donating $10,000 of their own money (that’s the single largest donation they’ve ever made – even more than they contributed to my college but OK MOM AND DAD) to this cause because that’s how much they believe in it. Or rather, that’s how much my mom believes in it and my dad believes in my mom. Which is even cuter TBH.
My mom never asks for anything (besides how to “turn the internet on” on her phone) but she is so passionate about this – and with her birthday coming up next month I hope you will consider becoming a part of this project – even if only for the tax deduction.
For my mom, for your mom, for our kids and for our planet – you know what to do: hitchcockcenter.org/colleen
Thank you – and I love you mom!