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The Nature of Childhood

Dave Becker is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for his leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States.

Dave Becker is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for his leadership and commitment to libraries and museums around the United States. 

Dave Becker

Like many people of my generation, a good part of my childhood was spent exploring, playing, and learning outside. Growing up in a midsize farming community in Michigan, I spent hours in the woods, climbing trees, building forts, catching frogs, and getting as dirty as possible. I didn’t know how valuable these experiences were until I became a parent. For my own children to have any of these experiences, I had to help make them happen. My children needed me and other adults to provide the spaces and opportunities, which are rapidly disappearing as access to nature becomes more and more removed from the human experience. This has become a central commitment of my work with children and families.

For the past 12 years, I have had the good fortune to work for an organization that shares my commitment to connecting children with nature: the Chicago Zoological Society (CZS). The CZS Early Childhood Initiative, known as NatureStart, is connecting children with nature with the help of an incredibly talented team of people. It is my honor to represent them and accept the Champaign of Change award on behalf of them and CZS.

A major breakthrough in our NatureStart Early Childhood Initiative occurred in 2001 when we opened Hamill Family Play Zoo. This groundbreaking exhibit is firmly rooted in an understanding of child development, play, and learning, and it applies new understandings from the field of conservation psychology—the study of the relationships between people and nature—about how children develop positive relationships with the natural world. The exhibit includes a variety of indoor and outdoor settings in which young children can garden, play in the woods, build forts, make mud pies, look for bugs, meet animals up-close, pretend to be animal, and help care for animals in ways that are meaningful and relevant for them.

We have assembled a dedicated, talented, and multidisciplinary team of educators with backgrounds in the arts, sciences, early childhood education, and informal learning. Our team is known as Play Partners by the children who visit us, and that nickname effectively describes our approach: we treat children as our partners in learning, and we learn through play. Our Play Partners and children work together to take care of the world around them in meaningful ways through daily walk-in programs offered from the time the zoo opens in the morning until the zoo closes at night.

As our NatureStart Early Childhood Initiative has grown in scope over the past 12 years, we have partnered with universities and community-based organizations to provide nature play events in underserved communities. We also mentor youth, provide college internship opportunities, and make our play gardens available to an early intervention program for children with disabilities as a therapy site. This is in addition to the 300,000-plus families we serve each year through daily Play Partner-facilitated programming at Hamill Family Play Zoo.

Through the support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, our NatureStart initiative now has a professional development component in which we provide training to zoos, aquariums, nature centers, and other conservation organizations. We teach them how to provide effective programs and environments that increase young children’s opportunities for play, exploration, and discovery in nature. We have seen informal educators who have taken part in our trainings transform their approach, and the network of early childhood environmental educators in zoos and aquariums in the United States and in Latin America is rapidly growing.

As much as we have achieved together in the past 12 years, we feel as though we are just getting started. We are continuing to expand our NatureStart Early Childhood Initiative with programs and partnerships. I look forward to seeing what we accomplish in our next 12 years!

Dave Becker is an educator and museum professional who serves as a leader for NatureStart.