Building the Museum: Engaging Children with the Natural World

The museum in the author's basement, circa 1977.  Copyright, Richard Telford

The museum in the author’s basement, circa 1978. Copyright, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

In the late 1970s, unbeknownst to our parents, my brother Will and I used a can of white, oil-based exterior house stain to paint on the short wall of our cellar what my brother, four years my senior, had calculated to be a life-sized silhouette of an Ankylosaurus, an herbivorous dinosaur dating to the Late Cretaceous period.  My mother’s first awareness of something being afoot came with her discovery of the stain-drenched brushes soaking in the bathroom sink shortly before dinner guests were to arrive.  To their credit, our parents could see the spirit of discovery in such endeavors, despite the inconveniences they might bring.  The Ankylosaurus a la Sherwin Williams was, in reality, just one of a number of acts of scientific discovery that took place in our cellar, some being more illustrious than others.

Another view of the cellar museum in the author's childhood home.  Copyright, Richard Telford

Another view of the cellar museum in the author’s childhood home, circa 1978. Copyright, Richard Telford

I wince even now, more than three decades later, when I think about the host of frogs that took the one-way trip—despite our earnest intentions and efforts otherwise—to the subterranean aquarium we set up in several old fish tanks, or the formaldehyde-saturated dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias) that circulated for years around our cellar in its thick, two-ply plastic bag, never to be dissected—my intended but later abandoned state science fair project.  In spite of such false starts and misguided efforts along the way, our cellar was a thriving classroom, both for ourselves and for other neighborhood children.  The creation of our life-sized Ankylosaurus was not an isolated endeavor; instead, it was the visual centerpiece of a much larger undertaking—the creation of our own cellar-housed science museum.

A small sampling of the collection of seashells sent to the author's family in the late 1970s.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A small sampling of the collection of seashells sent to the author’s family in the late 1970s. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Several fortuitous events augmented our museum’s collection.  The first was a brief visit from a second cousin of my father’s who had a two-day layover in New York before leaving for a long stay in Germany.  Several months after her visit, she sent a large package from Germany to thank us for our hospitality and to encourage our interest in natural history, which had been evident to her during her stay.  The package contained a dilapidated box packed tightly with a museum-caliber collection of seashells.  For each specimen, there was a small, typed paper label containing its respective binomial nomenclature identification.  How this collection was acquired, we never knew, as we never heard from its sender again, but it took its place among our growing holdings.

The author, right, and his brother, at the Ontario Science Centre, 1977.  Copyright, Richard Telford

The author, right, and his brother, at the Ontario Science Centre, 1977. Copyright, Richard Telford

My brother and I were likewise fortunate enough growing up to have been taken to numerous science museums and centers.  During this period, most museum gift stores offered for sale Kodachrome slide sets of their collections and of related phenomena.  We had acquired quite a few of these sets over the years, and many were displayed in our museum on an inexpensive light board or projected through our Kodak Carousel projector on a contraband bed sheet stapled to a floor joist.  There was also a plaster cast of a latter Triassic Period Coelophysis footprint, made by us at Connecticut’s Dinosaur State Park.  The remaining tables featured local specimens of all things natural, mostly dead or inanimate, but some living as well.  We rounded things out with an Edmund Astroscan telescope, a four-vaned solar radiometer (which can still be bought at Edmund Scientific for $11.95), and an assortment of items from our kitchen junk drawer.  Our displays were laid out on simple plywood tables our father had made to serve as platforms for our model trains.  Signboards and related posters lined the walls. Thus, our museum at 73 High Ridge Road was born.

To the trained curator, the organization of our collections was nebulous at best.  A diorama with assorted sandbox dinosaurs—a staple of my childhood—might be flanked by a set of NASA Landsat image slides on one side and a lethargic pickerel frog (Rana palustris) housed in a mesh-covered fishtank on the other.  But that, truly, was the beauty of it. When children build the museum, no matter what the scale or whom the intended audience, they are not hemmed in by the strictures of the adult world.  Nor should they be.  For children, building the museum is an act of exploration, of engagement; it is a natural manifestation of their innate sense of wonder.  In the compulsive drive to deliver to children of all ages what we now loosely term “a 21st century education,” i.e. an unfettered immersion in the newest instructional technologies that cannot and does not consider the whole child, it is precisely these impulses in children—to explore, to engage, to wonder—that we must take great care not to dull down or blot out.  The risk of doing so is terribly real, and the evidence of this unintended result of our best educational intentions is soberingly apparent and has been aptly illustrated in insightful works such as Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, David Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia, and Mary Rivkin’s The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside. These innate impulses must be fostered, honed, and celebrated.  For a child, building the museum, whatever shape it may take, can achieve these ends.

A collection of small shells bought by the author and his daughter for three dollars at a tag sale.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A collection of small shells bought by the author and his daughter for three dollars at a tag sale. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

In Gertrude Chandler Warner’s 1949 book Surprise Island, the sequel to her classic The Boxcar Children, the protagonists, the four Alden children, build a museum filled with bird nests, seashells, dried seaweeds, and paper cut-outs of the natural phenomena they observe on the island where they are spending the summer.  While reading this part of the book with my five-year-old daughter, I told her about the museum of my childhood, and she promptly asked if we, too, could build a museum.  Over several months we have collected a variety of items destined for our museum: robin egg fragments, a dragonfly wing, abandoned bird nests, assorted shells we have collected along the Connecticut and New York shorelines, and a host of other items. We too have had some fortuitous finds, such as a vintage, divided candy box filled with small seashells organized by species; this we bought at a tag sale for three dollars, and we will divide its contents into small grab bags for each of the children in my daughter’s first grade class.  This is important, as our museum represents something of an evolution.  Ours will go on the road to my daughter’s classroom, and perhaps, as my daughter gets older and my two young sons enter school, it will keep evolving and growing, as good museums do.

By the time my mother sold the house of our childhood in 2003, the last remnants of white trim stain had long ago sloughed off the damp north wall of our cellar, leaving no physical trace of our Ankylosaurus or the museum for which it had been the centerpiece.  The legacy of that museum, however, is a vibrant, living one that, through my own children, may well outlive its creators.  It is too easy these days to blindly place the proverbial eggs of our children’s future in the technology basket.  It is likewise too easy to despair over the disconnection from the natural world that so many children experience now, and to accept that disconnection as a necessary by-product of our present age.  As David Sobel has noted, we must allow children “to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.”  Building the museum is a great way to begin doing so.


Daughter of the Earth and Water: A Syllabus for Environmental English


By Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Better than all treasures/That in books are found . . .

–from To A Skylark by P.B. Shelley

When Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) needed some inspiration, he read the works of meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864), whose essay on clouds evolved into the classification system that weather professionals use today. The weather was Mr. Howard’s hobby, but he loved nature and wrote about science. The world was Mr. Shelley’s hobby, but he loved science and wrote about nature.

Fewer and fewer of my students become English majors. Their brains are immersed in science and math and technology; they want to become doctors and engineers. Many of them achieve their goals which are good for those of us who need the research done before we pick up our prescriptions that keep us alert enough to go to work and before we play outside in clean and sacred spaces.

Remember, and I shudder to write this, when these students leave my class, they may never read another poem or short story for the rest of their lives. What a world we live in when students spend most of their time on their phones or video games and do not go outside and look up or breathe fresh air or hike in the woods or notice clouds. How can we understand poetry if references to natural wonders are lost on the reader?

So, this year, I thought I would work with the HOSA (Health Occupation Students of America) teacher and devise a syllabus of topics that would immerse them in science and math, capturing their minds while I tried to capture what was left of their literary souls. Here is this year’s assignment and reading list:

Find the scientific, mathematical, and/or medical themes in your reading: patients’ rights, doctors’ rights, holistic medicine practices, right-to-die issues, AIDS, environmental justice and influences, Alzheimer’s, the role of government in health issues, addiction, poverty, medical care, philanthropic care, memory, sick societies, and preventative care.

Summer Reading, 2013-2014

Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen (nonfiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (nonfiction)

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (nonfiction)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (nonfiction)

Outside-of-Class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

August: Poboy Contraband by Patrice Melnick (nonfiction)

September/October: The Youngest Science by Lewis Thomas (collection of essays)

November/December: Small Wonders by Barbara Kingsolver (collection of essays)

January-February: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (YA fiction) and

                               The Professor and the Housekeeper by Yoko Ogawa (short fiction)

March-April: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (fiction)

In-class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Wit by Margaret Edson

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Long Day Journey’s Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

and one million poems and song lyrics and short stories

Okay, maybe not a million, maybe not even Shelley, and if I could, I would have my students subscribe to the paper editions of The Sun and Orion every year, to be able to appreciate the beautiful photographs and the exquisite nature writing. Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, on watching a grasshopper up close and personal is the first poem I teach every year.

For college students, the following syllabus is a little more academic as well as full of experiences: they choose an environmental justice issue to research. They volunteer hours to their new cause. And, this is the delicious part, we can have class in the open or in lab or a greenhouse or a park or a farmers’ market, at the botanic gardens, or in the science building.

Course Title: Environmental Activism: Discovering the Literary Influences

Course Objectives: 1) To analyze social, political, economic, cultural, historical, and spiritual factors that shape writers’ ideas about nature. 2) To discuss the literary art of nonfiction in environmental texts. 3) To consider environmental writers in choosing models for activism.

 Syllabus of Readings

Week 1: Inter-relationships: humans and the environment

Introduction to Course, A planned walk

Loren Eiseley, “The Angry Winter” from The Unexpected Universe

Robert Root, “Place” from The Nonfictionist’s Guide

Annie Dillard, “Heaven and Earth in Jest” and “Seeing” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

E. B. White, “Once More To the Lake” from Essays of E.B. White

Week 2: Bioregionalism

Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place” from The Sense of Place

Barry Lopez, “The Stone Horse” from Crossing Open Ground

Week 3: Environmental Justice

Eileen Gauna, “An Essay on Environmental Justice: The Past, the Present, and Back to    the Future” from Natural Resources             Journal

Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac

Week 4: Effects of Globalization

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed

Week 5: Resources and Conservation

Wendell Berry, “Conservation is Good Work” from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community

Gary Snyder, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons” from The Practice of the Wild

Joe Wilkins, “Out West” from Orion Magazine

Week 6: Overconsumption

Eric Schlosser, “Your Trusted Friends” from Fast Food Nation

Bill McKibben, ” Green from the Ground Up” from Sierra Magazine

Week 7: Pollution and Toxic Exposure

Kristen Iversen, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats

Week 8: Agriculture and Food

John McPhee, “Oranges” from Oranges

            Michael Pollan, “What’s Eating America” from Smithsonian

Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating” from What Are People For?

Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen

Week 9: Concerns about water

Midterm Exam

Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea

 Week 10: Indigenous Cultures

Leslie Marmon Silko, “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination” from The Ecocriticism Reader

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh

Week 11: Visions of present and future environmental conflict

Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

Week 12: Grass-root Movements and Setting New Courses

Wallace Stegner, “Wilderness Letter” from The Sound of Mountain Water

Edward Abbey, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” from Words from the Land:Encounters with Natural History Writing

Bill McKibben, “Where Have All the Joiners Gone?” from Orion Magazine

Week 13: Visions of Future Sustainability

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Week 14: Final Week

Thich Nhat Hahn, “Bathing a Newborn Buddha (Washing the Dishes)” from The Sun My Heart

Turn in Activism Project Paper, Final Exam

I did not get to Long Day’s Journey Into Night this year because of time, but I prefer to leave my students, not in the foggy coastal clouds of morphine addiction, but, instead, in the essence of the literary celebration of nature, just as Howard left Shelley in the throes of wind patterns, water cycles, and cloud forms.

All students of the world need recess where they can look up at a clean sky. All students of the world need to read the words that try to capture that beauty, a 10,000-year-old task, attempted by writers who understand that human beings struggle with the immensity of outside.


Throwback Thursday with Woodsy Owl


By Neva Knott

Posting my dad’s lecture notes this week kept me thinking about what’s changed since the environmental movement began in the 1970s. In my heart of hearts, I believe much has–we use fewer pesticides (but still too many), on-the-ground conservation efforts have increased–many topics of energy conservation, waste management, sustainability, and connecting human action to natural resources–are in the mainstream now. Even when I was in college in the late 1980s, that was hippy-kid stuff here in the Pacific Northwest.

I was pondering this then-now connection while walking my dogs this morning, on the school sports field below our house. There’s always trash around; today it was off-handedly strewn water bottles from last night’s soccer game. In my mind, I thought, what happened to “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute”?

And, in honor of Throwback Thursday, here’s the answer to that question:

Woodsy Owl is still alive and, still very active in conservation education through the US Forest Service. Heart-warmingly so. Check out this poster, the winner of the 2010 contest–what I love about it is the inclusion of so many environmental concepts, giving the millennial version of why one shoot give a hoot:


By Matalynn Clark

Woodsy also tours regularly with his buddy, Smokey the Bear. Here’s Woodsy, doing what he does best–walking the woods, spreading his message:


As a journalist, and a consumer of media–aka, a citizen attempting to be informed within the democracy I live–I hate the 24-hour-news cycle. When I began this blog, writing about Woodsy Owl and Crying Eyes Cody were on my list, and not just for a Throwback Thursday post; rather, I wanted to rejuvenate their images of importance–they are two icons from the 1970s that still have something to say today.

EE contributor Sarah Chessman wrote about Crying Eyes Cody a couple of months ago, and today, I found this post, written on another blog, about Woodsy–it’s the story I wanted to tell, but was scooped. Please go to the blog, “Peeling Back the Bark,” to learn how Woodsy came to be, and a bit about his creator, Harold Bell:

All images, including the poster credited to Matalynn Clark, are courtesy of the US Forest Service, in the Public Domain.

The Lesson My Dad Gave My Seventh Grade Class in 1973


By Neva Knott

Full moon tonight. That magestic golden orb shines through the still-bare boughs of the maple tree just at the edge of my yard. This morning, even, while I was walking the dogs at dawn, I saw her still in the sky, too full to move on to the other side of the world. Since, she has made her rotation–now she sits above the field to my northeast. This morning, the paler version of herself sat to the southwest.

My dog is on the deck, listening to the frog orchestra that began a week or two ago. The field floods in the spring rain, bringing these amphibians who, night after star-bright night, vocalize their passionate search for a mate and signal the change in temperature as we shift toward spring.

This is the second spring my dog and I have lived in this house. Each evening I’ve heard the frog-song, I’ve thought of my father. Of a particular memory of him. When I was a very little girl, three or four, we lived on the shores of Chambers Lake in Washington. Across the lake, coyotes would roam along the railroad tracks. They howled, and on those nights, my father would awaken me, wrap me in a blanket, and carry me to the porch to listen. To nature, to the universe of which we are all part. This memory, in my adult mind’s eye, has become emblemic of the legacy my father left me; he died when I was 15, but before passing instilled in me a deep understanding of the connection between humans and the natural world.

The frog’s melodies tonight are the beating of my father’s heart as he held me close, listening to the coyotes howl.

In the 1970’s my father worked for the United Nations, for the Food and Agricultural Organisation. He was posted in Bangkok, Thailand. I attended seventh grade at the International School of Bangkok. On September 17, 1973, my father came to school to give a lecture to my class. I have his notes to share with you here. He took care to put his concepts into the context of Asian culture and the Thai terrain. They’re written in pencil, so the images might not yield the information. I’ve transcribed it, as follows:

“Man and the Natural Environment.”


Page 1–Part A (5 minutes), Part B (15 minutes)

A. What is the environment? (5 minutes)  A smiling face on the left; a frowning face on the right, surrounded by arrows pointing at it

B. The Natural Environment (15 minutes)

1. Physical

1. High mountains

2. High plateau

3. Low hills

4. River valley deltas

(there is no number 5)

6. Continental-islands

2. Climatic

1. Extreme seasons/snow

2. Definite seasons/low rainfall

3. Wet and dry seasons/monsoons

4. Poor soil in the hills

5. Good soil in valleys and deltas

3. Plants

1. Seasonal–need food storage

2. Grasslands–not much variety

3. Swamp or wet land plants and grasses–broad leaf fruit bearing trees

4. Animals

1. Yak–long-haired cow

2. Buffalo, caribou–short-haired cow

3. Horse–grassland

4. Elephant–jungle

(In the margin he’d bracketed Plants and Animals with a note, Biologic or Biotic)

Scan 1

Page 2 (15 minutes)

C. Influences

1. Houses–for which he’d drawn a house on stilts, a two-story house, and a   tent (labeled, “tent”)

2. Food



(A side note reads “shifting ag. and paddi” and another reads  “dryland crops”)

3. Clothing

1. Protection–Tibetian Hat (picture drawn and annotated “fur, leather”); Thai Hat (picture drawn and annotated “plant”)

Yak hair and wool

Silk & cotton

D. Travel

1. Horses–fast

2. Yak–slow

3. Caribou–slow

4. Elephant–big, lots of food

5. Boats–Klong–outrigger

E. Gardens and Art

1. House in Garden–Inc. animals

2. Garden in House–Inc. animals

(An arrow points from the margin with the word “cities” at its end)

F. This shows we need nature

Scan 2

Page 3 (5 minutes)

On the left is the smiling face again. Above it, the word “Good.” Under it, this list:

Clean air

Clean water

Green scene


On the right is the frowning face. Above it, the word “Bad.” Under it, this list:

Dirty air

Dirty water

No green

No wildlife but rats

At the end of his notes, the following ideas are circled, with an arrow pointing them up the page:

Main cause–too many people

Main cause–ignorance

Main cause–desire for wealth now

Next to this list is a face with a squiggly mouth that means “confusion.” On each side of the face is a question mark.

The last bit of information:

The Warning Bells–

Loss of wildlife

Loss of Green

(On this part of the note page, it is clear my father pressed his pencil hard into the paper.)

He ended the presentation with this question:

If they can’t live–can man? Around it, four question marks.

These are the notes of the man who instilled in me my love of nature.

My dad’s schematic of “Man and the Natural Environment” is the same as the ecologist’s schematic today. And his ending question is the biggest question at hand.



These photographs depict some of his concepts. All are from wikicommons. The first is a yak, the second a Tibetian man in a traditional Tibetian hat, and the last Thais working in a rice paddy in Thai hats.

What the Birds Taught Me

Red-tailed Hawk

It’s true that the best lessons come in the most unexpected places.  I spent a year working as a raptor handler and environmental educator at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, a non-profit organization that cares for Vermont’s injured avian wildlife and gives a home to non-releasable birds that have sustained permanent injuries.  Going into it, I had no idea that several feathered carnivores would teach me the most important lessons I’ve learned in recent years.

The first thing the birds taught me was to be confident.  I learned this from the Harris’s Hawk, who became my best pal after I spent a winter cutting up his dinner of mice into small pieces, which I used to train him to fly between a perch and my glove.  Harris’s Hawks, unlike most raptors, are social creatures.  They live and hunt in family groups, and because they are used to working cooperatively, they are very trainable and commonly used in falconry.  However, their social nature means that one must be inducted into a Harris’s Hawk’s family flock before the bird is willing to do what you ask.  And until you’re accepted, they can be very aggressive.

Our Harris’s Hawk was no exception.  He would growl, he would lunge, he would adopt an intimidating stance, he would throw a sharply-taloned foot at me.  At first, whenever I put him in his crate to prepare for a program, he would slam his body, feet first, into the door of the crate as I closed it.  He would see me flinch.  Because he saw me flinch, he knew that he was in control, and he continued to slam around.  I knew that I had to stop flinching.  For fear of getting a few talons punched into my skin, I learned to be confident.

The second thing the birds taught me was to be happy.  My supervisor told me early on that the birds pick up on moods and body language and respond accordingly.  I learned this the hard way.  I went into work feeling sad one day, and the birds recognized this and let me know.  First, the one-winged Barred Owl refused to step up onto my glove.  My failure to get her on my glove only frustrated me, further adding to the negative vibe I was giving off.  The Turkey Vulture, a very sweet old lady who has been in captivity for more than 32 years, would not stop lunging at me and biting my hands with her sharp beak as I attempted to take off her leather jesses and anklets.  The Red-tailed Hawk flew into a tree instead of returning to my glove during the program.  And to top it all off, my dear friend the Harris’s Hawk turned away from me on a colleague’s glove, lifted his tail, and let an enormous projectile poop fly at me, hitting me straight in the chest and sliding down the entire length of my body, right before I went out on stage.  He has never pooped so much, before or since.  It was a terrible day at work, but I decided to never go to work upset or angry again.  I learned to be happy.

The birds never reacted so negatively to me again.  I still got plenty of poop on me every now and then, but they say it’s good luck if a bird poops on you, right?  If so, I have enough good luck to last me a lifetime.

It’s easy to consider the value of animals like raptors.  As top predators, they control rodent and other small animal populations.  They certainly provide an aesthetic value, enough to make one of them our national symbol.  But it is the moments that we share privately with wildlife that make us so grateful they share the Earth with us.  Seeing a Peregrine Falcon dive to catch its prey, watching the Turkey Vulture’s dark wings lift it up rising thermals of air, noticing a Red-tailed Hawk perched silently and stoically on the branch of a tree—these are the moments given to us to admire and appreciate nature’s beauty and ferocity.  I was lucky enough to get to know a few individuals.  And just like the other animals we get to know and love, these birds are much more like us than we think.