Test Your Eco-Literacy

Can you read the stories in your own backyard?

We have all gone to kindergarten and learned our ABC’s. Some of us even know more than one language. As Americans, we do a pretty good job at being able to teach our citizens how to read a book. Fewer Americans are taught how to read nature’s stories. This is part of what is called becoming ecologically literate.

The concept of ecological literacy was created in the 1990’s by educator David Orr in response to the realization that our children will be charged to solve very complex, ecological problems that have been created by past generations. As it stands, many children know more about the plants and animals in faraway places, such as the rainforest, than they do about the nature in their own backyards.

When I ask elementary school students about the nature they know, I often hear more about the panda bears that they saw on television than the deer they saw in their backyard. Because of our busy lives, our technology, and conveniences that keep us inside, we have become more disconnected with the natural world around us. The less connected we are, the harder it will be for our future citizens to solve major environmental issues.  

Becoming an ecologically literate citizen can be as simple as observing and learning about the nature in your own backyard. Ecologically literate citizens notice the patterns and systems within nature, how people affect those patterns and systems, and how we can use the resources that nature provides in a sustainable way.

Here are ten basic questions to test your ecological literacy. After each question, I have included some tips on how to find the answer if you do not know. These questions are just a start, and are based on our connection with the local environment. True ecological literacy in our increasingly globalized society should also include knowledge of global systems and patterns that affect our planet. Have fun with this quiz, and get outside!  

1) What cardinal direction does your front door face?

To get this answer, pay attention to what direction the sun rises and sets in relation to your home. Or, just use a compass! 

2) Name three animals or plants that are indicators of seasonal change in your area.

Now is a great time to learn about the animals that are harbingers of spring. Check out the article for more ideas.

3) What watershed do you live in? What is the closest waterway to your home?

If you do not have an obvious waterway near your home, you can also look for an area with skunk cabbage, which is indicative of a wetland site. Your watershed is defined by the major waterway that smaller waterways flow into. You can find your watershed address on this EPA website, and check out the article for more information.  

4) Name three animals, including insects, in your area that could cause you potential harm, and what to do if you are exposed.

For ideas, check out the article A good book on this subject is the Peterson Field Guide to Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants by Steven Foster and Roger Caras.

5) Name three plants in your area that are poisonous to eat or harmful to touch.

The book Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart is a really entertaining read on this subject. Amy presents each plant with entertaining anecdotes and scientific information. Also, check out the article .  

6) Name three wild plants in your area that are edible. How and when can you consume them, and what parts are eaten? Are the plants native to the area?

Wildman Steve Brill is a great resource on our area’s wild edibles. Also, check out the article .  

7) Name three animals that can be found around your home. Where do they find food? Where do they mate/raise young? What season can they be found in your yard?

Most of these answers can be found by observing the environment around your home over time. A good thing to do is to start a sit-spot routine, so that the animals become used to your presence. Check out this article on sit spots, . Some books that are helpful are the Stokes Guide to Animal Tracking and Behavior by Donald and Lillian Stokes, or any other field guide you may need.    

8) What are the common types of rocks in your area?

Pay attention to the large rocks and bedrock in your area. To identify the type of rock, check out the Peterson Field Guide to Rocks and Minerals by Frederick Pough.  

9) What did the landscape in your area look like 100 years ago?

A great book that explains how to look at nature’s clues to determine the history of a landscape is Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels.

10) Name three insects or amphibians that make sounds in your area, and identify the sounds.  

Spring is a great time to listen for animal sounds. Between the crickets and the frogs, there is a veritable chorus. To separate and identify what sounds you are hearing, check out this fun gadget, the IdentiFlyer. You can buy cards for this compact tool that will allow it to play various bird and amphibian calls while you are in the field.  

Chrissy C March 15, 2012 at 10:44 AM
Great article!
Lisa Buchman March 15, 2012 at 11:26 AM
I took this with my kids last night - they did better than I on some - sort of annoying and encouraging at the same time. And we have some backyard investigating to do this weekend - thanks!
Terry Costin March 15, 2012 at 02:50 PM
This is a great article! I plan on sharing it with my colleagues and hope it is a source of inspriration to explore and appreciate the beauty that surronds us! Speaking of inspiration, I'm hoping that community members will join us at the 5th Annual Katonah Lewisboro Sustainability and Wellness Fair which will be held at John Jay High School on Saturday, April 28 from 10:00-2:00. As always, it is a celebration of the related efforts in our schools and our community. Thus far, we have more than forty groups and organizations that will participate and be represented. Stay tuned for further information!
Beth Rhines March 15, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Terry, that sounds like a great event! I hope I can make it, especially because I live in Katonah :)


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