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Environmental education goes global

Long-established Shelburne Farms program in Vermont sends out ripples worldwide.

By Nancy Humphrey CaseCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 5, 2009

Youngsters attending Adventures Camp (ages 3 to 6) enjoy two sheep at the children's farmyard.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Shelburne, Vt.

A generation ago, kids received “environmental education” mostly through guided walks at local nature centers. Today’s “education for sustainability” is a global as well as a local phenomenon – a web of collaborative programs leaping over political boundaries, engaging adults as well as children, and bringing the needs of people into the environmental equation.

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Shelburne Farms, an environmental education hotbed in northern Vermont, is a good example of the changes. In 1970, after the first Earth Day, the owners of the 1,400-acre estate built on Lake Champlain during the Gilded Age opened an environmental summer camp.

As it grew, Shelburne Farms began to team up with kindred organizations in Vermont and later across Europe, Central America, and Asia. Its teaching manual, packed with hands-on activities for children, has now been translated into eight languages and is used in 16 countries. Current projects reach into Italy, Hungary, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Japan, and China.

A summer visit to Shelburne Farms shows how it practices what it teaches: When families hop aboard a wagon for a tour of the property, the tractor pulling it is powered by 20 percent biodiesel fuel. As the wagon winds its way through the sweeping landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, rows of organic hay lie in a field not mown until after ground-nesting birds hatch their chicks. Forests in the distance are managed to maximize the use of each tree harvested and to ensure that wildlife habitat remains as undisturbed as possible.

Visitors get off at the farm barn, which houses educational centers, offices, a bakery that uses local flour, and furnituremakers that use sustainably grown lumber. In the two-acre courtyard – where children romp among chickens, goats, sheep, and other farm animals – a lunch wagon serves local food on compostable plates made from cornstarch and vegetable oil.

A group of older children move livestock from one pasture to another for rotational grazing and discuss how people still, in a sense, “live off the land.” Other groups of summer campers explore woodland, pond, and shoreline habitats.

Students aren’t the only ones learning about the environment at Shelburne Farms. So are teachers, who come from as far away as Hawaii and Korea. Joe Brooks, director of Community Works, which cosponsors a week-long summer teaching institute here, says that teachers call the experience “life-changing”: “One participant told us this was the first teacher institute she’d attended that talked about what really mattered.”

Mr. Brooks thinks that the host site has much to do with that. “When people come here, they feel they’re part of something bigger,” he says.

The Spannocchia Foundation, which operates a working farm on a family estate in Italy, has looked to Shelburne Farms as a model since the former’s inception in 2003. Spannocchia hosts adult educational groups, offers on-site environmental education for local schools, welcomes agritourists, and conducts organic farming internships.