Thursday, November 18, 2010

Green Guest of the Month: Tim Magner, Growing Green Minds at Green Sugar Press.

Last week I caught up with Tim Magner, creator of Green Sugar Press, a Chicago-based publisher of eco-conscious children’s books. This week Tim shares some ideas on how schools and parents can help children “grow green minds.”

1.) In addition to offering engaging eco-themed books, how else does Green Sugar Press spread its environmental message to the community?

The Chicago-area is fantastic. There are thousands of organizations working to do good things for kids. Everyday there are groups meeting and functions happening. Things are getting done. I’m only one tiny piece.

At the same time, environmental education, or as I call it “inspiring kids to understand where they live, who lives with them and how the world works”, is still at the fringe. If you’re not in a well-to-do school, teachers are squeezed for time, focusing on test prep. And in the affluent communities, with enrichment activities galore, kids face mounting pressures to do “well.” This means tests and extra-curricular activities so they can get into the “best schools.” Too often, rote memorization is rewarded at the expense of digging deep and learning critical thinking.

2.) So how should schools approach environmental education?

I don’t blame individual teachers and schools for the movement to a factory model of school. Politicians who pass laws like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” mean well. They think business leaders want kids that can read and write and do math. That’s true, but, more importantly, businesses need graduates that know what it means to remain creative, work on a team and problem solve. What politicians don’t understand is schools are not producing cars. Each child is different. And that’s what we want, and need. Too often, restless and curious kids are penalized.

A lot of schools do a little recycling or have a school garden, but, too often, even early teens at these schools can’t explain why they recycle or what impact it makes. I’m not against celebrating Earth Day, but why not consider the whole child? We know kids benefit from immersion in nature nearby. We know kids learn better with hands-on learning that’s relevant to their world. So, why not weave in reading, writing, math, science, history, PE and the arts using the surrounding environment?

This means no more cookie-cutter Amazon rainforest lessons to 2nd graders. This does mean teaching creatively, leaving the confines of the four walls of the classroom. This means connecting with the community you’re in. Invite local community members to visit your class. Bring in the town engineer. Yes, students have to learn state standards, but there are no laws which say how to teach them.

3.) You’ve said that the best way to encourage kids to care about nature is for them to “get outside and get dirty.” What are some suggestions you have for parents and teachers to help kids connect with nature?

It totally depends on the age of the children. For a two-year-old, an army of ants roaming around with a scrap of food twelve-feet from the back door may be their Serengeti. For a couple of seven-year-olds, the equivalent might be exploring a new park you bike to a mile from home. For a twelve-year-old, it may be their first overnight camping trip, sleeping under the stars.

The benefits of being outside, preferably with some unstructured, child-driven activity, are substantial. And this goes adults also. While I didn’t know Rich Louv two years ago, I reached out to him and he offered suggestions to me on our book, “An Environmental Guide from A to Z.” I mention Louv because of his idea of the Family Nature Clubs. It helps overcome a bunch of the obstacles associated with spending time in nature. A free downloadable PDF guide is available at their children and nature network site.

4.) When you’re not busy as a writer, editor, and environmental educator, what are your favorite ways to “get outside and get dirty?”

I love great tasting food, so have spent some time at local community gardens and rediscovered how great it is to pull weeds. It sounds silly, but there is something to getting your hands dirty- even if you’re an adult. No, it’s not something I need to do for twelve hours a day . What’s crazy is how easy it is to not get outside ourselves, but how much better we feel even with a little time in our semi-wild region! That being said, even when I get out for a run, I have to remind myself to forget the day-to-day grind stuff and to pay attention to what’s around me. When I’m lucky enough to be with kids outside, however, its’ far easier to stay in the present and take everything in.

Check out Green Sugar Press’s great books on nature and the environment at:

Then go outside and get dirty!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Green Guest of the Month: Tim Magner, Growing Green Minds at Green Sugar Press

Environmental educator and writer Tim Magner knows everything in nature is connected. To help kids discover these amazing connections, Tim created Green Sugar Press, an independent, Chicago-based publishing company committed to producing quality, eco-conscious children’s books. I recently chatted with Tim to learn more about this green company and its mission to hooks kids on nature.

What inspired you to start Green Sugar Press?
If, after a few years of doing something, I stop learning, it’s time to move on. About ten years ago, I was stuck in the rat race, working to make money. Luckily, I was in a position to be able to transition towards something that made more sense- to follow a passion and fill a need.
That, and I like being with kids. They are more fun than adults, and are great learners. I’ve never met a six-year-olds that isn’t curious. The trick is to keep them that way ‘til they’re sixteen and twenty-six and help develop their creativity.

What are some of the challenges Green Sugar Press has faced as a small start-up publishing company?
Too often, we describe work as the opposite of play, but if you can model work like play, it’s fun and it breeds success. By that I mean, watch toddlers play. As they try to climb onto things and move things, they are exploring and being creative. Through trial and error, and failing along the way, they are also solving problems. As long as we keep some of that type of work in our work, it’s never becomes work as we normally associate it. Does that make sense?

Apply that to publishing: we’re in a perfect storm. The existing structure works poorly and the business is changing. Why should a children’s picture book sell for $16-$20 with the author taking home 5%? And, yet, more often than not, the publisher puts up a great deal of capital and still loses money? Distribution and marketing look different today than they did ten years ago, and, in five years, they’ll be vastly different than today. Fewer hard cover picture books are being sold, and the e-book, in all its forms, is adding to the landscape. Hard covers aren’t going away, but there’s a chance a decade from now more kids will be reading more than today. The publisher’s challenge is how to better engage the reader and add to the experience.

The slogan of Green Sugar Press is “growing green minds.” What does it mean?

It’s about getting kids outside and giving them opportunities to be kids- to wonder, to wander, to explore and to investigate. It means kids learning about connections, first-hand.
I want kids to grow up smarter than us, so, as they mature and learn critical thinking skills, they become systems thinkers, understanding you can’t have a conversation about the local watershed, for example, unless you talk about a lot of different factors, including farming, transportation, public policy and who influences it.
Not all kids are going to grow up to become activists or conservationists, but all kids ought to have a chance to play outdoors, to bond with the natural world and to become ecologically literate.

Currently Green Sugar Press has three titles on its list: “N is for Nature”, “An Environmental Guide from A to Z”, and “Earl the Earthworm Digs for His Life.” Any new projects in the works?
Plans on seeking new talent?

Yes, everyone likes new projects. I’m in a much better position than eighteen months ago and have a few things cooking. Unfortunately, I seem to have issues with focus and following through.
I’d like to expand our influence and am conducting due diligence on starting a 501c3. The focus is largely the same, but we’d be more innovative- both on content and distribution. For example, we’d like to inspire youth to create work and then use the online community to be the judges. And we’ll focus on reaching the underserved communities, for example selling books at, say $1.00 each, and then giving the proceeds for development, perhaps to start a community learning garden.

At the end of the day, I’m only as smart as the average bear. I need creative people to help me.

Thanks, Tim, for giving us a glimpse at the exciting, green-minding thinking of Green Sugar Press. Check back next week for part two of this interview and learn how Green Sugar Press connects with schools and the community to spread its environmental message.

In the mean time, learn more about Tim Magner and Green Sugar Press at: