June 2010 Issue
Educators Paul and Cathy Knoop have encouraged untold numbers of children and adults to explore the outdoors.
In theory, the log home in the Hocking Hills was built with an eye toward retirement. In practice, though, Paul and Cathy Knoop’s 70-acre forested retreat offers plenty of evidence that this pair of environmental educators isn’t planning to stop teaching Ohioans about the wonders of the natural world.
Several species of woodland wildflowers, humble perennials adorned with beautiful but delicate blossoms, are growing in a small plot next to the garage. On the other side of the gravel drive is a small pond, which Paul has “seeded” with the eggs of salamanders and wood frogs. Each spring the wildflowers bloom and amphibians return to the pond, which makes it easy for schoolchildren and their teachers to hear, and see, and even touch them.
A seat on the elevated deck behind the house offers a view of a meadow filled with native Ohio prairie plants. And visitors don’t escape the outdoors by going indoors: speakers inside the house play the music of songbirds, courtesy of microphones placed under the eaves.
The Knoops, who built their careers in nature centers and land labs, clearly cannot help but bring their work home with them. This comes as no surprise to their closest friends.
“Paul and Cathy have an almost evangelistic eagerness to share their knowledge with people… to share with others their sense of wonder,” says John Wilson, an environmental educator at the Aullwood Audubon Nature Center
near Dayton. Wilson worked with Paul for 10 of Knoop’s 35 years at Aullwood.
Connecting children with the outdoors is a popular parenting topic today: Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, launched a best seller and a modern back-to-nature movement by writing about “nature deficit disorder,” a disconnect between individuals and the natural environment. Louv suggests that disconnect may contribute to childhood problems like obesity and attention deficit disorder.
But decades before Louv described the condition, Paul and Cathy Knoop had prescribed a cure, and fought mightily to inoculate a generation that was slowly but steadily being lured indoors by television and video games and hemmed in by the loss of open land. Over the past 30 years, these two educators have touched the lives of countless children either directly or indirectly: Paul through thousands of school programs at Aullwood; Cathy as an elementary science teacher in Miami and Pickaway counties. In addition, the two have participated in environmental-education seminars for 30 years, teaching teachers how to bring the natural world into their classroom, and vice versa.
“How many lives have they touched? I couldn’t begin to estimate that,” says Cinda Hanbuch-Pinkerton, director of environmental education for the Miami County Park District. “Because it’s not only the individual people and lives they have touched with their combined passion and enthusiasm and knowledge. When they touch one person, that person touches another person, and another 10 and another 100.”
And although the Knoops have traveled all over the world, one of their greatest gifts is “raising awareness of what an amazing place Ohio is,” Hanbuch-Pinkerton says.
“People think that to see amazing plants or animals or natural features you have to go to South America or travel to somewhere else in the world. [The Knoops] bring an awareness of just how special are some of the things you can see in Ohio.”
Their exceptional efforts have led to numerous awards. Cathy brought a flurry of attention to Laurelville Elementary School in 1999, when the Walt Disney Co. recognized her science teaching with its American Teacher Award. She also was once named “National Conservation Teacher of the Year” by the National Association of Conservation Districts. Paul’s credits include the “Naturalist Award” by the Ohio Biological Survey, an honor reserved for long-term efforts on behalf of understanding and conserving Ohio’s natural environment. And his 35 years at the Aullwood Audubon Center were recognized with the National Audubon Society’s “Great Egret” Award.
The honors are well-deserved, says Phil Roe, an elementary-school principal who hired Cathy for her first job in the Logan Elm school district, when the couple moved from the Dayton area to the Hocking Hills in the mid-1990s.
As she had at previous schools, Cathy turned the schoolyard into an outdoor education center, adding trails, bird feeders and message boards where students could post bird sightings and other observations. She also had the energy and organizational skills to lead Girl Scout troops, create a Junior Naturalist Club and launch ambitious field trips.
“Cathy would take special-needs students, students with behavior problems, and they would flourish out in the woods,” Roe says. “They would take leadership roles, keep their notebooks in order. She had expectations for them, and they would meet those expectations.”
Roe’s wife, Lynn, taught with Cathy and says she always created an excited air of discovery in her classroom.
“Cathy would bring in a box of [sedimentary and igneous] rocks, with four of each category,” she says. Before discussing the differences between them, she would let the kids divide the sample based on their own observations. “And quite often, their criteria would be very close to the scientific criteria.”
For Paul, the classroom of choice has always been the outdoors, and the students anyone who happens to venture within earshot. Even casual visitors learn something about the natural world when they step outside with Paul. On a short walk from his house to a 60-foot waterfall at the far end of his property, he points out an unusual type of magnolia tree and hunts the canopy for the red-shouldered hawk that he’d heard calling. He describes the hawk’s unusual courtship rituals and notes, with amusement, that even the surliest teenager will join in a conversation about nature if the subject of courtship is involved.
Aullwood’s Wilson says Dayton-area residents may remember Paul Knoop’s newspaper column, “Our Natural World,” which appeared for several years in the Dayton Daily News. Knoop did a good job on the popular column he had inherited from a mentor, Wilson says, but the arm’s-length communication of journalism never suited him.
“He really didn’t care much for writing the column,” Wilson says. “His energy comes when he has people in front of him — one on one, or one on 5 or one on 50 — when he can see the light go on in their eyes. Then he gets in the groove.”
While they have their own distinct styles, Paul and Cathy agree that the secret to engaging children in the natural world is to engage their sense of exploration.
“When I take kids out, I don’t do a lot of telling,” Cathy explains. “I mostly have them discover things. When they take a tree bud and split it open and find little miniature leaves inside, and they figure out that, ‘Wow! Those have been there since last fall,’ that gets their attention.”
Paul, who has been known to hold live bumblebees between his thumb and index finger to show his students how the stinger moves in and out of the body, says getting an emotional reaction helps make the lesson stick. “I just show them how to look under leaves, logs, rocks. Using all five senses is really basic to getting them emotionally in touch with living things,” he explains.
Retirement hasn’t dimmed the Knoops’ passion, although much of the work they do now is as volunteers. Both lead hikes and conduct seminars, and small groups of schoolchildren now visit their Hocking Hills property for instruction. While Paul is 76 and Cathy is 63, no one expects them to stop teaching soon.
“It’s really something to see, with both of them, whether they are working with kids or adults,” Wilson says. “Both of them with this great confidence that what they are doing has significance, that they might change the world, one or two individuals at a time.”