By fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be an environmental scientist. Every weekend my older sister, Jennifer, would take me to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan where she worked at the interlibrary loan desk. Perusing the exhibits and stacks inside and exploring the relatively wild acres of Central Park outside allowed me to dip into a world filled with scientific questions and wonder. None of my peers liked nature as much as I did, and they weren’t to blame: Growing up in the city just didn’t offer exposure to the natural environment. But I knew I wanted to work in nature—digging soil and finding Belted Kingfishers, the species that first sparked my interest in birds. Then, with a single statement, my science teacher tore that desire from me.
My classmates and I were petrified of the teacher. Out of fear, I never participated in class, and on my report card she noted my “lack of enthusiasm.” One day this teacher dismissed my dream of becoming a scientist in front of the class: “Science isn’t for everyone, so you’d better think of another option.”
My parents tried to console me with a subscription to National Geographic. It didn’t work. I thumbed through the pages wondering if I’d ever see some of those majestic landscapes and rare animals, but I was already picturing myself as a tourist rather than an expert. I gave up my dream and ultimately became a professor of Black studies and later of youth studies, burying the sadness of that loss—until my daughter declared, at age 4, that she would be an ornithologist. From that moment I was determined to reinforce, stimulate, and encourage her love for the natural world, and not let anyone obliterate her dream.
From the time she was a toddler, my husband and I noticed that the aviary sections of the botanical gardens and zoos we visited were her favorite. She would spot birds camouflaged among the trees and require us all—including her big brother—to tiptoe past them. As she got older, she would carry a small pad to sketch avian discoveries. She searched for library books about birds of all kinds and for her birthday asked for binoculars and bird-related games. She was slowly beginning to build her own knowledge base with only a slight guiding hand from me.
When it was time to enroll her in school, I looked for one that offered a nature component in its curriculum. Exposing children to the natural world must be a main goal of teaching science, according to the National Standards of Science Education established in 1996 by the National Research Council. And several studies have found that children who spend time outdoors and in nature are much more likely to be well-rounded and academically focused. Yet such access is a challenge for many children of color, particularly those who live in urban environments, like my children, and low-income neighborhoods.
My search turned up schools that either had unaffordable tuition or were too far away. Local schools offered nothing close to what my children experienced from mere wanderings and field guides. I had already been homeschooling my son, who has a deep fascination with ice-age paleontology, for a year, and I began homeschooling my daughter, too, switching my professional work hours to teach evening classes—a choice I feel fortunate to be able to make.
The act of sewing nature and science into the fabric of their education is fulfilling for all of us. Sure, their days are filled with traditional subjects and plenty of deskwork, but there are also entire days spent outdoors investigating, photographing, sketching, and observing.
Designing these learning hubs led me to Natural Classroom, a six-series inquiry-based and experiential program for a fee of $130 per class, with a maximum class size of 30. The program, run by The New York City Parks Department, uses the city’s parks and preserves to teach about plants, urban wildlife, ecosystems, and geology. Leading one of our trips was Urban Park Ranger Nadilyn Beato, whom my daughter quickly pointed out is, “Brown like us.”
We rarely encountered Brown or Black teachers during our external homeschool trips, particularly on science excursions. Ranger Nadilyn was the first naturalist we met who was a person of color. My fourth-grade science teacher was, unfortunately, the only one I knew until college. While the disparity is not as stark as it was in my childhood, the gap is still quite wide. Although children of color make up the majority of the student body at various public schools across New York, for instance, the teacher population remains 80 percent white, according to a 2019 New York State Department of Education diversity report.
Ranger Nadilyn and my daughter hit it off immediately. My daughter began to interview her in subtle ways, asking her first how she became so knowledgeable about nature. Ranger Nadilyn shared that she grew up in the Bronx, and like so many other children of color, she had little connection to parks. But from early on her parents instilled a respect for nature and wildlife. “I have memories of my father showing me how to carefully pick up and release insects who accidentally flew into our apartment window,” she recalled. In 2016 she joined the Urban Park Rangers as a ranger and environmental educator. “Seeing the spark in a child after they learn something new brings me joy,” Ranger Nadilyn told me. “I hope I inspire children to become environmental stewards. But no matter what career they choose, I hope they remember the time Ranger Nadilyn showed them something in nature they will never forget.”
During an exploration of Fort Totten Park in spring 2019, Ranger Nadilyn answered every question the children asked about birding, including my daughter’s specific inquiries, such as: “Would a predatory bird hurt a human?” When my daughter excitedly reflected, Ranger Nadilyn, exclaimed, “Yes!” and asked everyone to applaud. Perhaps that’s her response to every child, but for my daughter, it was empowering. At seven, she saw in Ranger Nadilyn many possibilities for herself and for a future in studying birds as an expert.
After that class, I arranged a series of Natural Classrooms for the spring 2020. Then COVID-19 hit. Program cancellations abounded and we had to reckon with new limitations to accessing nature in our densely populated urban community. Yet it gave us an even more focused opportunity to explore birds that seemed to flock to the trees right outside our living room window.
“Oh! Quick! Come see! A cardinal is on the tree in front of us!” I yelled to my children. “He’s so beautiful.”
“He is actually a she,” my daughter said. “The female cardinals have brown feathers and a little red on top of the crest. The males are red all over with a black face.”
She quickly ran to get a field guide to prove her statement. Spurred by her enthusiasm, we have made several birdfeeders to attract diverse visitors, and we participated in the Great Backyard Bird Count in February. We have seen Blue Jays, American Robins, Dark-eyed Juncos, and an array of sparrows sharing their food with squirrels. At one point we were treated to a flock of crows flying in beautiful formation to land on a neighbor’s roof.
At the same time, we were relieved when Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology shifted their Junior Ornithologist program to online in 2020 and for a low cost. For a week in July, ornithologists taught about bird diversity, songs, and habitats. We’ve made use of the bird ID app Merlin, livestream birdcams, and the Audubon for Kids plans and supplements. And although many bird workshops are geared toward adults, our children enjoy attending them and grasping every bit of information they can. They ask me to take notes so we can later discuss concepts. As we move into our second fall of COVID-19 we are venturing out more, but we continue to fill our feeders and look out for new visitors.
My daughter, now nine, continues to gently pursue a love of birding fearlessly and without hesitation. Her drive for discovery has inspired her brother and she never hesitates to teach anyone who wishes to learn from her. Like any child, she may change her mind about studying these beautiful creatures, her interests may pivot to something else. But at least whatever path she chooses, she has been given the confidence to embrace possibility and to dream of all the things she can become.