Get them to cultivate a love for nature early in life, and children will respect it their entire lives.
That's the philosophy behind the county's first large-scale outdoor environmental education center at Ring Factory Elementary in Bel Air.
The new center was inspired by the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center in Abingdon, owned by the county school system. It provides environmental education and recreation programs for about 12,000 students annually.
"Students go there and just spend a few days. This way, students can be involved with nature on a constant basis," said Kevin McBride, a member of a committee of the Parent Teacher Association at Ring Factory that came up with the idea for the school-based environmental education center.
McBride, a landscape architect at Morris and Ritchie Associates Inc., a planning and engineering firm in Bel Air, worked on a design for the center, including the illustration that shows where different elements of the plan belong.
The proposal includes areas of different types of plants, flowers and trees to attract birds, animals and even butterflies. Paths will wind throughout the center.
The environmental committee of the school's PTA wanted to construct a wildlife habitat and an outdoor classroom on an undeveloped portion of the 31 acres surrounding the elementary school, off Route 924 and Ring Factory Road.
"We were fortunate in that so many people wanted to be involved," says Janis Smith, a PTA member.
The core committee of seven parents included McBride. Many more parents, teachers and members of the community have since joined the project, she said.
Ring Factory Principal Stephen L. Hagenbuch said the environmental center gives the school a priceless opportunity to teach hands-on earth science to young minds.
"Teaching students about the environment has became an increasingly important part of science classes," he said.
Smith said the center is being created with the future in mind. It will benefit not only the students at the school now, like Smith's daughter, Katie, in the first grade, but future generations as well.
Some work on getting the center started has already taken place, such as planting trees and seedlings.
But it's a long-term project, and planning how it will take shape is essential, said McBride. "Nature doesn't work overnight; this is a project which will take years to complete," he said.
The environmental committee, which began meeting in December, started work on phase one with a $500 grant, about 800 donated seedlings and lots of hard work, Smith recalled. The school started collecting aluminum cans for recycling in January, and has generated about $200 from the effort for the center.
A total cost for the project hasn't been determined.
But the timetable for moving forward will depend on money, including grants and donations, say PTA members.
The Chesapeake Bay School Reforestation Project made the grant to the school through the Department of Natural Resources and the Forest Conservancy District Board.
The grant money was used to purchase 42 trees for the center. They were planted earlier this month.
McBride said the design for the property will be for people, as well as wildlife. The area has been divided by different types of plantings into "rooms" in which children can learn about nature up close.
A nature trail will wind through the property to allow students to study a variety of wildlife in natural settings without disturbing it.
The environmental committee wants to attract a variety of birds, such as woodpeckers and bluebirds, to the site. Bird houses are being put on the property to supplement existing dead trees, which make good nesting areas for those birds. An area has been set aside where grasses, which provide food and cover for wildlife and birds, will be allowed to grow undisturbed for three years. After that, one-third of the grasses will be cut each year. This will allow students to study what types of animals are attracted to different kinds of grassy areas.
A planned amphitheater, which would be used as an outdoor classroom, will have wooden benches and tables to accommodate about 60 people.
McBride said a goal of the design is to work with the natural topography of the site.
Trees will be planted on sloping hills to stop soil erosion from rain, and existing paths will be modified to prevent erosion.