Building blocks of well-being

How does the natural environment help sustain human life? At first glance, we may point out food, water, construction materials, and other similar examples. Along with these types of provisions, we receive an extensive suite of benefits from our natural environment, referred to as ‘ecosystem services.’ Ecosystem services encompass all the physical, mental, and spiritual gifts (a.k.a benefits) that people derive from nature.

These benefits could result from naturally occurring processes, for example, the ability of natural areas to provide habitat for bees; if bees have a habitat, they can exist and help pollinate our gardens and crops. Besides serving as a habitat, natural areas can possess qualities and abilities that protect and enhance communities. These include flood reduction, reducing extreme high temperatures in urban areas, or trapping pollutants before reaching water sources. Lastly, ecosystems can enrich our lives by providing education and recreation opportunities and other cultural, spiritual, and historical experiences that contribute to our well-being and happiness. In natural and social science, scientists study ecosystem services to better understand and report the advantages of protecting, restoring, and enhancing the natural environment.

A pier at a bay-side restaurant in Corpus Christi, TX. Some of the ecosystem services highlighted here are the aesthetic of eating by the water, the recreational opportunity of fishing off a pier, and the opportunity to create art through cellphone photography. Photo by Diana Del Angel

Yet, teaching about ecosystem services can be a little tricky, especially for a young audience, for it involves a mixture of fields such as natural science, economics, and social studies. Particularly important is understanding the connections among the environment and human well-being; the linkages are not always direct and instead involve a series of chain reactions and cause-and-effect relationships between the environment, flora/fauna, humans, and human activity. Therefore, as a fun way to illustrate ecosystem services, the Harte Research Institute’s Socio-Economics Group has developed the Ecosystem Services Jenga game. The game uses the traditional Jenga© pieces to demonstrate how environmental and human changes can impact habitats and associated ecosystem services. It is interactive, and demonstrates the relationship between the physical, biological, and human components, specifically for coastal estuarine systems, such as those found along the Gulf of Mexico.

The Ecosystems Services Jenga game adapted for the Gulf coast ecoregion. Photo by Diana Del Angel

The Ecosystem Services Jenga tower highlights how the presence and health of one component (say wetlands) support other elements of the system, such as the fauna who use it for habitat and the people in this community. At the bottom of the stack is a set of blue Jenga blocks; these represent open water estuarine environments. Estuaries are considered some of the most productive ecosystems in the world; many species rely on these habitats for food, habitat, and migration. The next set of blocks is decorated with green grass representing coastal wetlands. Coastal wetlands exist along the water-land margins and are vegetated with various grasses and shrubs. These provide habitat for many species, as well as flood protection, erosion control, improve water quality, and provide recreational opportunities for the surrounding coastal communities. Next are two categories of the fauna that live within these habitats: detritus feeders and low-level predators (yellow block) and upper-level predators such as birds and mammals (red blocks). Here, the upper-level predators are dependent on the availability and health of fauna lower on the food chain. Lastly, the top blocks are grey and represent the built environment, the people who live in it, and all their activities in this system. Being at the top of this tower reminds us that the quality of life of a coastal community rests on a diverse set of habitats and depends on the system’s flora and fauna.

The game is played in teams of 2-4 players. Each player takes a turn drawing a flash card that portrays a potential coastal environment scenario. These scenarios include global processes like changing environmental conditions or the occurrence of storms and droughts and local activity like development, pollution, and restoration of natural environments. Some scenarios require the removal of one or more blocks from the Jenga tower, destabilizing the system; While other scenarios promote stability by allowing blocks to be returned to the tower. The game is designed to raise discussion around our local environment, how it contributes to our well-being and how we can create negative and positive impacts. Ecosystem Services Jenga can be incorporated into classroom lesson plans, public education centers, or played at home.

This activity was adapted from NJ Sea grant Consortium’s Food Web Jenga which can be found here. In fact, one reason we love the game is because it can be tailored to your specific community and environment – a busy port, desert town, mountain village, suburbia – wherever there is interaction between humans and the environment. To download and print the version we adapted for the Gulf coast, click the link below. It includes a set of “scenario flash cards” to get you started, but you can create and add as many scenarios as you want.

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