The Hillsborough school district planted a fruitful seed with the opening of Nature’s Classroom five decades ago on the cypress-lined banks of the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa. • The lessons taught there to some 17,000 sixth graders each year have never been more important than they are today. • For one thing, kids need to spend more time in nature for their own good, and instead, they’re spending less. For another, the nation needs a new generation to step up as stewards of the environment as it faces unprecedented assault.
That’s a lot to lay at the feet of a single program in environmental education. But the years have proven that Nature’s Classroom is doing its part.
On Saturday, Nature’s Classroom opens its gates to the public for one day so everyone can see the good work done there throughout the school year.
This annual open house points up the lasting memories the center has imparted to hundreds of thousands of young visitors: It was at the urging of alumni that the open house was started some years back, and now, when the weather is good, they show up in droves.
What’s more, staff members at the center are routinely approached in public by now-grown former sixth-graders, eager to relive their few days at the place and offer a word of thanks.
Nature’s Classroom turns 50 next year, at a time when the school district faces a financial crisis — nearly a billion dollars in debt, another billion dollars in deferred maintenance needs, and reneging on a promised raise for teachers.
But as they scrutinize operations for savings, district leaders would be wise to recognize the value of this educational gem and do what they can to ensure Nature’s Classroom will be around another 50 years.
The public can help, too, as private businesses and institutions have through the years, by supporting the center financially — including assistance with the care and feeding of the 80 or so creatures who live there.
A student typically spends three consecutive school days at Nature’s Classroom, making the long trip up Morris Bridge Road and back in a twice-daily parade of school buses. There, she wades into the water netting tiny river creatures, handles slithering snakes if she’s willing, and hikes boardwalks overhung with lush natural woods.
Nature’s Classroom presents the outdoors as a positive experience and helps children overcome their fears of insects and reptiles — lessons one would hope they also are learning from their families.
But sadly, for many of these 11- and 12-year-old kids, this field trip is a first venture into the natural world.
This has always been the case among the students who visit Nature’s Classroom. But it’s a bigger concern today as parents grow busier with work, access to the wonders of nature grows ever more distant, and video games dominate kids’ free time.
In an often-quoted phrase from his acclaimed 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, author and environmental advocate Richard Louv relays what he was told by a fourth-grader in San Diego: "I like to play indoors ‘cuz that’s where all the electrical outlets are."
At the same time, concern for the environment has never been greater, driven in part by fears that the administration of Donald Trump — and his industry-friendly EPA administrator Scott Pruitt — will turn the country the wrong way on clean air and water, wilderness preservation and climate change.
In a Gallup survey last month, 40 percent of respondents said they are concerned "a great deal" about the quality of the environment — about as high as that figure has been since the organization first asked the question in 2001. The highest number ever was 47 percent last March, right after Trump took office.
The percentage of people who say the quality of the environment concerns them either "a great deal" or "a fair amount" is 72 percent, according to Gallup.
Teaching the next generation about the environment, then — and perhaps inspiring an interest in how to do something about it — seems a worthwhile mission for our schools.
Nature’s Classroom is an important part of that mission, continuing to provide a rich, hands-on experience in environmental education that no traditional classroom can match.