Nature and Nurture: Kaplan educates at Roaring Brook
Updated: Aug 18
• At Roaring Brook Nature Center, Kaplan nurtures appreciation of nature
This article was first published in Today Magazine, our monthly publication — this Today Online version has been updated and enhanced
By Bruce Deckert — Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
New York City seems an ironic place for a formative encounter with wildlife — but that is exactly the locale where Jay Kaplan, director of Roaring Brook Nature Center, learned to more fully appreciate nature.
“I have been keenly interested in the natural world and wildlife since I was a young child,” Kaplan says. “I would visit my father’s family in the Bronx, three blocks from Yankee Stadium, and go to a park where people would feed squirrels and birds. These are early memories of being close to wildlife.”
Kaplan grew up in suburban Long Island, where he and a friend would play in a wooded area that “is now a subdivision — this was my first introduction to finding toads and salamanders.” When he went to summer camp, while others played ball, he chased more salamanders.
Since 1976, Kaplan has lived in a residence at the Nature Center on Gracey Road in Canton. He and his wife, Kate Simmons Kaplan, married in 1982 and have a son (Josh) and a daughter (Sarah). Josh and his wife Katelynn have a son (Jayden).
Jay Kaplan, who was born in May 1949, began working at Roaring Brook Nature Center in October 1973 in the role of naturalist. He has served as director since 1975. Regarding his resumé before Roaring Brook, he notes that he has been employed at the center for almost 50 years — “anything I did prior to that is a long time ago,” he quips.
“As a child, a friend and I would observe and collect items from the natural world,” says Kaplan. “I remember having a grasshopper collection, bringing home garter snakes that sometimes got loose in the house, and making a list of birds seen in our neighborhood — a list I recently uncovered.”
Kaplan recalls that his mother once asked him why his love for animals didn’t lead him to become a veterinarian.
“That was never my calling,” he says. “No one ever encouraged me, a kid growing up on Long Island, to continue in this field. It leads me to sometimes think that naturalists are often just born with that innate curiosity about the natural world.”
A graduate of Cornell, Kaplan first heard about the Nature Center in a somewhat serendipitous way: He was “hanging around the graduate office” at Penn State University, where he earned his master’s degree in outdoor education, when he saw a job posting.
VALUING NATURE EDUCATION “My experience as an environmental education major at Cornell gave me a thorough background in flora and fauna,” Kaplan says. “When I went to Penn State ... I learned how to communicate this natural history knowledge to others. Thus, upon graduation, I was well-positioned to [be] an environmental educator.”
His work as an educator often takes him to schools throughout the Farmington Valley and elsewhere.
Roaring Brook Nature Center has been affiliated with The Children’s Museum of West Hartford — formerly the Science Center of Connecticut — since 1973. The two facilities are frequented by visitors from across Connecticut and beyond.
Kaplan appreciates the opportunity to share his enthusiasm for nature with students: “Working with the public, especially children, remains rewarding to me after these many years. ... It is vitally important for [people] to take an interest in the world around them and develop an understanding about how their actions affect the environment in which we live.”
“Education continues to be important in that everything in the natural world is interrelated, and people must understand that their actions play a role in shaping the environment we all share” — Jay Kaplan
Roaring Brook Nature Center opened in 1948, but then it was known as the Canton Children’s Nature Museum. In 1964, the adjacent 100-acre Werner Farm was given to the state of Connecticut as a wildlife sanctuary, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and since then the Nature Center has served as the steward of this “outdoor classroom,” says Kaplan.
A new facility was built in 1966, providing space for more programs and exhibits.
In 2018, the Nature Center completed a major renovation project — “the largest since the building opened in 1966,” Kaplan notes — and was honored as the Canton Chamber of Commerce’s Business of the Year.
“There is always more to do and there are numerous ways we can improve our offerings to students and to the public,” says Kaplan, who has served as chairman of the Canton Conservation Commission and as a Canton Land Trust board member. “We need to keep up with ever-changing technology in order to let people know what we have to offer. We need to increase our volunteer base as it is more difficult to attract volunteers today.”
NATURAL FAMILY ATMOSPHERE
In addition to Kaplan, Roaring Brook Nature Center has three full-time employees: assistant director Margery Winters of Simsbury, lead educator Sydnee Foster of West Hartford and wildlife rehabilitator Liam Shortt of Bloomfield. Meanwhile, raptor care coordinator Nancy Barmashi of Farmington works part-time about 25 hours per week. The center also employs a few other part-time staff — and of course volunteers assist in various capacities, with room for more.
“All things in the natural world have fascinated me since I was a very young child — animals, plants, soil, rocks, weather and water,” says Winters, a West Simsbury resident since 1986. A native of Canada, she began volunteering at Roaring Brook in 1993, joined the staff part-time in ’95 and became full-time in 2006.
“It has been a great pleasure to work at the Nature Center and to help it grow over the years,” says Winters. “I would have loved to have had a nature center near me when I was a child, and appreciate the special role that such centers have in helping young and old develop a love and understanding of the natural world.”
Barmashi and Shortt oversee the center's Wildlife Clinic and have cared for over 250 animals in 2022.
Alecia Langlois worked full-time at Roaring Brook from January 2017 to March 2020. When this story was first published in Today Magazine, she was a Simsbury resident who served as the center's wildlife care manager.
“I remember having a grasshopper collection, bringing home garter snakes that sometimes got loose in the house, and making a list of birds seen in our neighborhood” — Jay Kaplan
“The staff here is much more like a family than a group of colleagues, comprised of ... compassionate, educated and supporting individuals,” she says. “It’s both the people and the animals that make it all worthwhile.”
A Connecticut native, Langlois says she can’t trace her appreciation for nature to a single formative experience.
“I can say that I have been completely overwhelmed at times by things that nature has provided to me,” she affirms.
“The crisp, clean smell of a pine forest and cool dirt beneath my feet, seeing the sun rise over the ocean, captivation by the wildlife in my backyard, feeling the wind in my hair — when you learn that every little thing plays a part in making those experiences available to you, you appreciate those little things a whole lot more.”
In a high-tech, fast-paced society inundated by smartphones and computers and smart TVs and artificial intelligence, nature education can be an antidote for technology’s adverse consequences. If you’d like to counter the status quo with some natural intelligence, Roaring Brook Nature Center is at your service.
“There is a famous saying by environmentalist Baba Dioum,” says Kaplan, “that goes like this: ‘In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.’ Education continues to be important in that everything in the natural world is interrelated, and people must understand that their actions play a role in shaping the environment we all share and in which we all live. That is what we strive to do on a daily basis.”
The classic philosophical question asks: nature or nurture? In this case, the answer is: both. +
This article first appeared as the cover story in the May 2019 editions of Avon Today Magazine, Canton Today Magazine and Simsbury Today Magazine — the forerunners of Today Magazine • Monthly Digital Editions archive
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The following factual error appeared in the original Today Magazine version of this Roaring Brook Nature Center story — the mistaken info has been corrected in this Today Online version of the story:
• BEFORE — Today Magazine version
In 1964, the adjacent 100-acre Werner Farm was given to the Nature Center as a wildlife sanctuary.
• AFTER — Today Online version • updated and corrected
In 1964, the adjacent 100-acre Werner Farm was given to the state of Connecticut as a wildlife sanctuary, under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and since then the Nature Center has served as the steward of this “outdoor classroom,” says Kaplan.
• Thanks to Roaring Brook Nature Center director Jay Kaplan for noting the need for a correction — he adds, "I hope many of Today’s readers will have an opportunity to visit the Nature Center in the coming months and participate in one of our upcoming programs."