A Teacher’s Guide to Using the Schoolgrounds for Environmental Studies

Review courtesy of Fletcher Brown, University of Montana
Author unknown

Environmental education for children growing up in urban areas is often limited to a single trip to a forest preserve or state park.  The hidden message behind such field trips is that the environment must be sought, and that their local community is not a part of a greater ecology.  Helen Ross Russell believes that environmental education can be taught in all locales, including the hard-topped schoolyards common in urban areas.  Ten-Minute Field Trips provides opportunities for students to learn about the natural processes occurring all around them, to develop a concern about the misuse of this planet, and foster a willingness and ability to initiate and support positive action on the basis of this knowledge.

The book begins with a short chapter making a strong case for schoolyard field trips — they are available to all schools; are conducive to repeated trips throughout a day, week, or school year; can easily and spontaneously be integrated into a daily lesson, even in a tightly structured teaching environment; and can be the springboard for a greater depth of inquiry by students.  Before launching into field-trip ideas, there is a short chapter emphasizing the importance of fostering curiosity in learners of all ages.  Russell believes that:

If schools are going to have a meaningful role in today’s world, they
must be more than dispensers of information and places to read; they
must keep alive the natural spark of curiosity, they must nurture the
ability to think, they must permit a child to grow.

The remainder of Ten-Minute Field Trips is filled with ideas for providing students opportunities to do the above.  The activities are divided up under the headings of “Plants,” “Animals,” “Interdependence of Living Things,” “Physical Science,” “Earth Science,” and “Ecology.”  Each section is divided into several subsections.  For example, “Animals” is broken into Vertebrate Animals, Birds, Animal Tracks, Insects and Other Arthropods, and Earthworms.  Each section and subsection provides background for the teacher about the general subject, classroom activities that may be taught in conjunction with the field trips, suggestions for teacher preparation, and field trip possibilities.  The field trip ideas are intentionally fairly vague, so as to be relevant to a wide variety of age groups, skill levels, and school environments.  For example, one of the Earth Science field trips suggests observing nearby waterways, including gutters of city streets.  In this field trip, students are asked to observe the difference in the load carried by rapidly flowing water compared to slowly moving water; to find waterfalls, deltas, canyons, or outwash plains; to build a dam and observe the change in water flow and siltation.  Students in urban or rural schoolyards, from kindergarten through high school, could engage in this activity, focusing on anything from an aesthetic appreciation of water systems to the physics of water dynamics.

Although originally published in 1973, Ten-Minute Field Trips is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago.  It is full of great ideas for teachers who may not think that their teaching environment is conducive to hands-on environmental education, as well as for those who do.  With stories and obvious excitement for the topic, Russell creates both a useful manual and an interesting read.  Although written in the context of schools, most of the activities could be integrated into day and residential camp programs, nature centers, or family experiences.  As Russell points out, Ten-Minute Field Trips is not a complete teaching guide, it merely “suggests possibilities which the teacher can select and adapt as a starting point.”  Whether teaching in a hard-topped city school, or wild and green summer camp, this book can be a valuable resource for educators of all subjects who want to infuse their curricula with experiential activities that bring the local environment home.