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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Central Park Nature Center

Air Date: Week of

The Belvedere Castle at Manhattan’s 79st Street has become a natural learning center for youngsters in the heart of the city. Kids explore and learn to identify plant and animal life in the recently restored greenery that is Central Park.. Beth Fertig reports.


NUNLEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley. In an overgrown corner of Manhattan's Central Park there's what looks like an old medieval castle. The structure was built as an observation tower from which you could survey nearly the entire expanse of the grand park. But over the years it fell into disrepair and many became leery of its dark rooms and stairway. Today, though, the walls reverberate with the sound of children's voices. As Beth Fertig of member station WNYC explains, the tower has found a new life as a nature center for kids.

(Kids milling. Child: "Up here, and you lift it up." Several children at once: "It's a earthworm!" "Oh, that's disgusting." "He's trying to get away.")

FERTIG: Like most 10- or 11-year-old girls, 5th grader Samantha Mata doesn't have many kind words for earthworms. Especially not this one wriggling in a petri dish under the bright light of her microscope. And yet, as she peers closely, the worm is kind of cool.

MATA: And it's a pregnant one.

FERTIG: He's moving around a lot, isn't he?

MATA: Stay still.

FERTIG: It's hard to get a good look at a moving worm, but this one does appear to be pregnant. The bulging stripe that resembles a rubber band gives it away.

MATA: It's the -- there's this little lumpy thing there and it's kind of pinkish. And see? Right there.

FERTIG: Years ago city kids interested in Central Park's wildlife could only roam the trails or dig in the dirt, maybe with the help of a patient schoolteacher. But now there are microscopes, maps of the park, and bird watching kits, all at the new Henry Luce Nature Observatory in Belvedere Castle. Here at its opening reception, Kathleen Keebert Gruen, executive director of public programs for the Central Park Conservancy, says the nature center is part of an evolving focus.

GRUEN: The last 15 years we've really been focusing on restoration of the landscapes. And now as the landscapes have really become restored and beautiful, public programs is our vehicle for teaching the -- teaching New Yorkers about caring for the park and appreciating the park. Teaching them stewardship concepts.

FERTIG: The Conservancy is a private nonprofit that administers Central Park in partnership with the city. It's been operating free, educational programs in fields such as botany and geology since 1984, and now reaches more than 10,000 kids a year. But there was never a centralized location open to the public for drop-in visitors. So with the help of a $1.3 million grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, named after the founder of Time, Incorporated, the Conservancy renovated Belvedere Castle into a nature center. The gray Victorian castle off 79th Street had been almost vacant for years. It was created in 1872 by Calvert Vaux, one of the park's chief landscape architects, to be just an observatory, a nice place from which to gaze over the park. It's also home to the park's weather station. But by the 1970's the castle, like the rest of Central Park, had become dilapidated and covered with graffiti during the city's fiscal crisis. It was first cleaned up in the 1980s.

(Children laughing. Woman: "Want to do another one?" Child: "Yeah." Woman: "Pick another one.")

FERTIG: Today Belvedere Castle has a whole new look. Windows have been carved into the formerly blank stone walls. Inside there are games, tools, and exhibits to help visitors learn about the park's wildlife. Ellen Wexler, who designed the space with her husband, says it has 3 themes.

WEXLER: We really wanted people to have the experience of being a naturalist. We wanted to really engage them in the kind of thought process and the emotional process of looking at nature. So we've separated the room into identifying, observing, and recording, which are 3 processes and steps that scientists and naturalists use.

FERTIG: So along with microscopes and telescopes, children can play a learning game to classify bugs and worms. In another corner they can draw pictures of animals and write about them. A fish tank filled with creatures from the park's Turtle Pond provides extra inspiration. The entire castle has a whimsical feel. A tree reaches up to the second floor where visitors can listen to birdcalls and explore a chart showing some of the park's 275 migratory guests.

(Bird calls. Recorded voice identifies it as a hummingbird.)

FERTIG: There are also walking tours of the ramble, a wooded area right near by. It's ideal for bird watching as these children from the gritty streets of Washington Heights discovered with glee.

(Child: "I saw the bluejay." "A cardinal." Woman: "There's a woodpecker down there." Child: "Where?" Woman: "It's on the ground...")

FERTIG: On this short walk the children saw cardinals, woodpeckers, and a raccoon sleeping up in a tree hole. Even the pigeons looked more exotic, perched on branches instead of window ledges. Math teacher Sandy Jarmouth was happy to see her students enjoying the new program.

JARMOUTH: I think it gives them a chance to see something they don't usually see, and I think they're fascinated by nature because they live in concrete all the time. And so fresh and -- you know, refreshing.

FERTIG: It's also potentially exhausting. Becoming a naturalist requires a sharp eye and a quick hand with binoculars.

(Woman: "It's like you see it. Can you focus on it?" Child: "Uh huh" Woman: "There's our flicker. See if it has the black on the cheeks.")

FERTIG: But with a little guidance, even city kids like these are soon deciphering the secrets of Central Park's forest and its colorful birds.

(Woman: "Can you see?" Child: "Um, yeah I have the black." Woman: "Yeah? So remember what that means? There it goes." Child: "It's a boy." Woman: "Did you see the flicker of yellow?" Child: "Uh huh. Uh huh.")

FERTIG: For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Fertig in New York.

(Child: "It's a boy." Woman: "Maybe if we go on this side we can catch him again." Footfalls. Woman: "You hear that noise?" Child: "Yeah." Children laugh. Child: "That was a woodpecker that we just saw.")



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