Wolverines, Wonder and Wilderness
Why the Wolverine Matters to a Kid Who Has Never Seen a Raccoon
by Megan McGinty
IT IS APRIL AND I AM SITTING UNCOMFORTABLY on the cobbles of a gravel bar on the Skagit River in the North Cascades National Park with a group of local fifth graders, talking about the special rocks we just found. Ranger Paula arrives and greets us, asking the kids about their day and if they’ve seen any wildlife on their hike this afternoon. Excited, they all talk at once, clamoring to describe the chipmunk that ran across the trail and the robin they tried to take pictures of as it flew into the canopy. Paula begins to talk about the wildlife research being conducted in the park by scientists and asks the children “What animal would you most like to see while you are here?”
At this last, my answer, the kids all turn and stare at me quizzically. Paula laughs and explains to the kids what a wolverine is and that they require a large amount of wilderness for their habitat. “How do you know they exist?” one asks. “Good question.” replies Paula.
For many of the kids, these two nights in a paved campground, using a bathroom with flush toilets and running water, eating out of a group kitchen with a gas stove and a refrigerator (albeit at picnic tables under a roof with only two walls), will be the most rugged outdoor recreation experience they ever have. For nearly all of them, the most pressing environmental issues they will come to terms with will be economic, as the area’s historically resource extraction-based industries dwindle. There is less land, less water, fewer trees and not enough fish available for these kids to follow in the footsteps of their parents and grandparents. Some of the students are already coping with the effects of illnesses caused by exposure to pesticides, industrial pollutants, lead in their drinking water and a myriad of other difficulties resulting from low-income residency. Given the realities of daily existence for some of these students, the fact that they are living within two hourís drive of one of largest areas of wildernesses within the contiguous United States is of little importance to them. Or is it?
Wilderness has long held a role in Judeo-Christian culture; its effects are still felt each year as millions of devout practitioners observe Lent. A significant portion of modern American culture still grapples with the issues raised by wilderness, from literary classics such as”The Call of the Wild” to the hit TV show “Survivor”. Many aborigine cultures used wildlands as the foundational setting for rites of passage and seeking insight. As we began to define ourselves as human and civilized, we also needed to label that which we were distinguishing ourselves from. It seems that as soon as man began to exist, so did wilderness.
Environmental education first came about as a movement when conservationists and educators recognized the effects of an increasing disconnect between society and the natural world. The need to rekindle that connection inspired efforts to get kids out into the woods, to take them out into the wild, because that’s where “real” nature was. It was assumed that a big part of the reason for the growing alienation from nature was due to the fact that there was no nature worthy of inspiring a connection in the cities and suburbs we live in. As school budgets tightened, the likelihood of such field trips and opportunities became scarce. At the same time, many thinkers began exploring the connections made to the natural world during childhood and realized that for many kids, it happened in the more common places such as vacant lots or backyards, places that they were allowed to have daily contact with. Educators began to wonder if the connections being made had less to do with the “wow” factor than with intimacy and immediate relevance.
Recent trends in environmental education have rendered the phrase ìplace-based-educationî a hot term, and rightly so. More curricula are available that allow the local schoolyard or drainage ditch to be a laboratory for ecological study. Innovative teachers have devised lessons that allow even the most urban settings to serve as the source for environmental theory. Students living in heavily-impacted areas are now more likely to be exposed the concepts behind environmental justice than to a canned curriculum about the Brazilian rainforest. By bringing a concrete (literally) relevance to the students’ daily lives, environmental education is being brought closer into the fold as a valid academic discipline.
The problem is this: wonder thrives on apparent irrelevance. I think of my friend Diego, born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the South Bronx. When he was fifteen, he went to a wilderness program in the Appalachians for students from the South Bronx High School who spoke English as a second language.
Incredibly out of place in an alien land and culture, he fell in love with climbing and returned to the program as an intern and later as a staff member. He now spends his free time in alpine wildernesses and climbs in some of the most remote parts of North America.
In this more recent vein of locally-focused programs, many kids are not introduced to the large chunks of land and water that are todayís wildernesses. This is often done with the assumption that this is best for them. Every educator is charged with the task of assigning importance to some lessons over others. The best educators begin with assessing what their students already know and where they are coming from.
There are many students with a wide range of experiences, so a sort of middle ground is aimed for, that is, the lessons are designed for the greatest commonalities among the students and the experiences they are most likely to already have. To be sure, Diego is an anomaly, but he is also an example of a student that flourished by getting a chance to see the wide world beyond his backyard.
It can easily be argued that a wilderness area isn’t needed to teach a group of fifth graders what watershed they live in or where their food comes from. A significant number of environmental education programs never reach a point where wilderness issues become pertinent and of those that do, there is rarely room in the curriculum for the issue. However, an educational program that is not prepared to address the question of wilderness is limited in its ability to handle the larger philosophical questions that environmental education tends to beg. (Should we preserve lands? Which ones? Why? What is ‘preservation’?, etc.) Even though the instructors often have to work with constraints such as lesson time, program length, or student background, they need a solid fundamental philosophy from which to base their lessons in order to effectively grapple with the more abstract aspects, the “big questions” of environmental education.
As we make lessons more real and connect them more intimately to students’ daily lives, we must not forget the importance of the great unknown. Appealing to the sense of wonder, to the promise of discovery, is of essential importance when convincing future generations to become active conservationists. When we introduce schoolchildren to the mysteries of their backyards, we cannot answer every question, nor should we try to. If they receive the message that all the answers have been found, that everything is under control and fully explained, there will be no reason for them to continue discovering and questioning.
By presenting the backyard as what it is, a test case, a fraction, a tightly bound series of parameters that can only serve as the roughest of sketches for the great ecological mysteries of the wildlands, we are giving them the most honest of lessons. No longer are they schoolchildren on an outing following a curriculum designed to lead them towards a predetermined outcome. They have been initiated as citizens of the planet who will play a role in shaping its future. How these kids will feel about their role in the environment can be decided by whether or not they know or don’t know that there are places on the planet where human impact is not yet a primary shaping factor.
Environmental issues cannot be conveniently contained with the boundaries of a city, state or even a country. Instead, they ignore the abstract divisions we have attempted to draw and reinforce the interdependence of ecosystems on both big and small levels. We need clean air, clean water and healthy soil, and preserving the areas that are still reservoirs of these things is as important as cleaning up the areas that are dangerously contaminated. Letting kids think that recycling and picking up litter will be sufficient to address the current and pending environmental issues is not far from lying to them.
The value of something beyond that which we know and see in our daily lives is of absolute importance when trying to convince people to work towards a goal that does not have immediate or tangible results. Kids need to be encouraged and to believe their efforts will have results, but we should not deceive them about the magnitude or pace of environmental progress. They will need inspiration for the work that lies ahead, be it in the form of a magnificent photo in National Geographic, a video of an amazing rainforest or tales of strange and fantastic creatures that live in remote wildlands.
When I was young, before I could read very well, one of my favorite books was a Dr. Seuss volume titled “McElligot’s Pool”. The story is simple: a farmer is teasing a boy named Marco who is fishing in McElligot’s Pool, a small pool in the middle of a cow pasture that people throw junk into. He thinks Marco will catch nothing but an old shoe. Marco concedes that the farmer may be right, but wonders if the pool could be connected to an underground river that flows to the sea. He imagines the progression of the secret river that connects the puddle to the great sea and the increasingly more bizzare creatures that live there. As a kid, I was absolutely captivated by the idea that the mundane things in my backyard could be connected to bigger, more exotic things that lay far beyond. Suddenly, pretending to be exploring the Amazon while catching and identifying spiders in the vacant lot next to my friend’s house did not seem quite so farfetched. In fact, it made the spider-hunting seem less like playing and more like training for someday exploring the great unknowns that still remain in the wildlands.
Megan McGinty lives in Bellingham, WA and is an Environmental Educator with North Cascades Institute. Photo by Benjamin Drummond.
Seeking Environmental Maturity at Starker Forests
Helping students climb the ladder to responsible citizenship
by Richard Powell
tarker Forests is a family-owned tree farming business of about 80,000 acres, mostly within an hour’s drive in the Coast Range west of Corvallis, OR. For many years, we’ve taken people on trips to the woods. These might be field trips for school children, university students, visiting foresters/scientists from around the world, or the general public. We’ve hosted a number of workshops for teachers.
As our society becomes increasingly urbanized, we see people becoming increasingly unaware of the origins of the things they use in their daily lives. We’ve had high schools students identify their electric hair dryers and modeling clay as not coming from natural resources. A senior remarked that he didn’t know Oregon had rock quarries (apparently the concrete floor we were standing on just magically appeared)! A group of high school students weren’t even sure what natural resources were but thought a dairy cow might be related to natural resources – although, they weren’t sure. As an example of something not related to natural resources, middle school students often point to their classroom’s television.
To become a wise user of natural resources, it is imperative that people understand where things come from. Our intent is to help them re-connect with the natural world and, more specifically, get a better understanding of the forest and the origins of all the wood products they use.
At the same time, we find people have little sense of the history of a landscape. Students are taught the science of the environment but they do not connect that science with the landscape’s history. We want people to understand that biology and history have worked in tandem to shape what they see; the landscape is a function of both biology and history.
Of the school groups we take on field trips, most come from elementary schools; a few come from middle schools; only rarely, do they come from high school. Being so close to Oregon State University, we do get some university students and we get a lot of people from the general public. We get a number of foreign visitors – foresters, scientists, landowners, etc.
Even though we take many school classes to the woods, we get very little feedback from the teachers. [The best feedback is that most teachers come back year after year.] The absolute best feedback we get is when we see a child a year or two later. It takes very little time for us to realize we’d seen them before and that they remember quite a bit from their earlier field trip.
With adult groups, we commonly hear someone remark how a forester has to know about and care for so much more than just the trees. Sometimes, we’ll hear someone say they have to re-think what they know about forests and forestry. Now and then, they’ll remark how they still don’t like some of the things we do in forestry but they begin to understand there is a reason for what we do and it is based on science – it is not just about the money.
Though we take around 2000 people a year to the woods, we are foresters; we are not trained in pedagogy. For years, we’ve had a nagging question: is what we’re doing working? Do people “get” what we are trying to teach? Does any of this stick with them for the long term? Or, are we wasting our time and money?
This past summer, I attended the World Forestry Center’s International Educator’s Institute (IEI). As an environmental educator without any formal pedagogical or interpretive training, I found this week-long workshop enlightening and very worthwhile.
The part of IEI that I found most useful was called the “Pedagogic Steps in Environmental Maturity”. It validated what we’re doing.
In essence, the “Steps” is a ladder and, to get to the top rung (i.e., “Environmental Maturity”), one has to climb up from the rung below. For example, it would be futile to talk to someone in Swahili if they had not first learned and become fluent in that language. Without that prior knowledge, we’d quickly see a bunch of glazed-over stares and we’d find we’re pretty much wasting everyone’s time.
Step #1 — Learn to enjoy the outdoors.
Just get people outdoors. Adults enjoy a nice drive or hike in the woods. Take the kids hiking or camping or go canoeing on the neighborhood pond or river. Let them have fun. We’ve always felt people had a good time, but, did they learn anything from their field trip and did any of that learning stay with them?
Step #2 — Experience and observe nature.
Smell the flowers, feel the sun’s warmth, or get soaked on a cold, rainy day. Explore around a beaver pond and see where the beavers had burrowed into the bank to build their dens; look for a tree’s stump or a branch the beavers had chewed. Have people simply stop, close their eyes, and listen; it is incredible what they’ll hear for the very first time. In a few minutes time, people will never become an expert at identifying a tree but we can get them to see that the leaders, buds, needles, color, feel, bark, flowers, smell, taste, pollen, etc. vary greatly between tree species (no, they do not all have pine cones nor do they all have pine needles).
Step #3 — Understand the ecological web.
Now that we have them outdoors, they are having fun, and beginning to experience and see things, they can begin to understand what they see. Pick up and look at and feel a handful of dirt. As they see and feel the litter layer, moss, worm holes, roots, bugs, fungi, moisture, texture, etc. they begin to understand it is not dirt at all – it is soil! (Dirt is what we wash off our hands before lunch; soil is the good stuff.) Likewise, they can sample the water’s pH, dissolved oxygen, and temperature and see how those might affect the macro-invertebrates in the water. They can see a tree’s cross-section and associate the narrow growth rings with a dense forest canopy or maybe see that the wider rings are due to a more open canopy.
Once they’ve seen the differing buds, leaders, bark, leaves, etc., they can begin to see how some tree species are similar while others are different. They can begin to group similar trees into a genus, name those groups and the individual species, and begin to understand a tree.
Step #4 — Understand the interplay of man and nature.
Yes, we play in nature and we like to see and experience nature. But, more than that, nature is the source of life’s very existence! Nature provides the air, nutrients, energy, and moisture required by all life forms on the planet. Take away any one of these and life ceases to exist; alter any one and life is changed. This is the food chain. Or, put another way, life is totally dependent on the extraction and use of natural resources for its very existence.
In addition to the food chain, nature is the source of everything people use. Iron, sulfur, wood, cotton, plastic, gasoline, concrete, clothing, electricity, coal, food – in some way, all of our wants and needs are extracted from the environment.
Looking back at those tree rings, maybe they can see how those narrow rings became wider. This was likely due to opening up the canopy by either a natural means (a tree died or blew over in a storm) or the forest had been thinned.
Step #5 — Make decisions on environmental issues.
This step is one we really wrestle with. We know there are a lot of controversial issues over the use of natural resources so we strive to just stick with the science and the history of the land – on these, there should be little controversy. [Unless asked, we endeavor to keep our biases or personal philosophies/opinions to ourselves.] As Project Learning Tree says, we’d rather “teach how to think, not what to think”. We’d prefer to let people take what they saw and learned and make their own decisions.
Step #6 — Be responsible for the future.
We’d hope, after going out and experiencing the woods, our visitors are better able to make more informed and better choices. With choices comes responsibility and this would be the perfect time for a community service project.
As a practical matter, we see most people for just a brief time and it is hard for us to do steps 5 and 6 with them. With students, we hope to plant some seeds that, during the course of the school year, the teacher can help germinate and grow. With that, the students may make some decisions and then take responsibility.
That said, we’ve sponsored Tree Planting Day annually for more than twenty years. We take a harvested unit, make sure it is safe, there is a reasonable traffic flow, etc. and then invite youth and their parents to come out and plant a few trees. We’ve had as many as 400 youngsters and 200 parents on a Saturday morning though 140 youngsters and 90 parents is more the norm. They have fun (step #1); we do this rain or shine and, usually, in the mud (step #2); they plant little seedlings that, hopefully, will grow into large trees (step #3); it’s on a unit that was harvested for all the products made from wood (step #4). Further, they’ve chosen to spend a Saturday morning in the cold, rain, and mud (step #5) and help ensure that that harvested unit is reforested (step #6).
A few months ago, we took a pre-school class to the woods; these were three and four-year olds. Other than having a good time (step #1), what could these little guys possibly get from a mile-long hike in the woods; could they even get above that first step?
A few days after their field trip, I had a wonderful surprise delivered to my desk. There was a nice poster with a picture of me kneeling down and surrounded by the kids; I was showing them a stick some beavers had chewed on. Concentric, brown circles drawn around this picture gave this poster the appearance of a tree’s cross-section.
The good part was on the backside of the poster. The teachers evidently sat down with the kids to debrief and find out/reinforce what the kids had learned.
“We made duck, cougar, bear, beaver, and a raccoon print”. [Some years ago, we made some “sand boxes” across the road so kids could make animal tracks with some rubber prints.] — Step #1
“The bear foot print was the biggest; we heard birds; we learned a fir cone; we saw lots of trees”. — Step #2
“We count the rings of the tree to find out the age of the tree; trees need water; if trees don’t have water, they will not grow; trees need sun, water, air, just like us”. — Step #3
“We saw the letter ‘S’ on trees. ‘S’ trees were dead”. — [This particular plantation was on ground that had been burned around 1850 and, post-settlement, it was a pasture. We’d planted this pasture and, since it had not previously been a forest and there were no large trees, snags, downed logs, stumps, etc. for wildlife habitat, we created some snags when we thinned this forest. To help people see these snags, we’d painted an ‘S’ on several snags.] — Step #4
We were truly amazed how much these three and four-year olds took home from their mile-long hike. We were especially pleased their teachers had followed up with their students. Their comments in step #3 were especially gratifying.
About a month and a half later, a parent/teacher sent me a note. Her son was one of those pre-school students and he was still talking about this field trip!
It would have been nice if they had gotten to steps 5 and 6 but that would be quite a lot to ask of a three or four-year old.
Richard Powell is the Public Outreach Forester for Starker Forests, Inc., in Philomath, Oregon.
Environmental Leadership: Making Connections
Two service-learning programs within the Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Oregon aim to deepen students’ knowledge of their bioregion through day-long, hands-on field trips.
By Kathryn A. Lynch, Environmental Leadership Program, University of Oregon
hildren and young adults are often more tuned into the screens in front of them than the landscape surrounding them; when asked which direction is north their inclination is to check their smartphones. In response, the Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Oregon is developing environmental education projects seeking to reconnect children to nature.
The Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) is an interdisciplinary service-learning program housed in the University of Oregon’s Environmental Studies Program. Our mission is to provide undergraduates with an integrative capstone experience, our graduate students with project management experience, while engaging with the community to address real needs.
Since 2001, ELP has developed and implemented 81 projects addressing a wide array of topics. Currently, our projects fall within four primary tracks: environmental education, conservation science, sustainable practices, and community engagement.
The two main goals of our environmental education teams are to: 1) provide UO students the knowledge, skills and confidence to develop and implement place-based, experiential programs; and 2) develop age-appropriate, engaging curricula for local youth, grades K-8, that promotes the stewardship of our natural world.
During winter and spring of 2015, our two environmental education teams focused on the theme of “connections.” The new Restoring Connections team worked in partnership with Mt. Pisgah Arboretum and Adams Elementary to develop and implement a place-based curriculum which included an interactive classroom lesson and a field trip to Mt. Pisgah. The team provided over 200 K-2 students an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of where they live and the importance of conservation and stewardship. The Canopy Connections team worked in partnership with the HJA Experimental Forest and the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute to develop and facilitate an interactive pre-trip lesson and field trip for over 200 middle-schoolers. Students studied forest succession, learned how to use a compass, wrote poetry in field notebooks, and climbed 90 feet into the canopy.
To prepare for their service projects,the undergraduates first enrolled in Environmental Education in Theory & Practice. In this class, they gained a working knowledge of best practices in EE through readings, guest lectures, field trips, and most importantly, their service-learning project in which they developed educational materials for their community partners. While the specifics of the curricula were left up to the teams to determine, all teams were required to: 1) incorporate an interdisciplinary approach, 2) include multicultural perspectives, 3) use experiential, inquiry-based methods, 4) promote civic engagement, and 5) articulate assessment strategies. Their materials were pilot-tested at the end of winter term, and the teams then worked with their community partners to implement their EE programs throughout spring term. Each UO student completed approximately 120 hours of service, which entailed facilitating classroom visits, field trips, and developing supplemental educational materials (e.g. websites, presentations). What follows are descriptions of these projects, written by the team members themselves.
Case Study 1 –
Restoring Connections: Unplugging and Reconnecting
By Ashley Adelman, Roslyn Braun, Lucas Holladay, Kiki Kruse, Kerry Sheehan, Zoie Wesenberg, and Alicia Kristen (Project Manager).
s a group of students made their way into the Douglas-fir forest from the oak savanna, a facilitator hushed the group with a “quiet coyote” hand signal. Immediately, everyone hunkered down, peering through the brush as the group tried to get a glimpse of the discovery. A student squealed in delight. The deer was still, its gaze locked onto ours. Having taught our students about the importance of deer ears for hearing predators, they noticed how the deer kept her ears pricked forward, waiting for our next move. The group slowly moved up the hill trying to get a better view. Experiences like this have the ability to enhance the senses like no video game or television show can. Learning about environmental issues at a young age can be overwhelming, but connecting to local nature, students can become more aware of and in tune with the natural world.
In spring 2015, the Environmental Leadership Program launched the Restoring Connections project at Adams Elementary School. Our team of six undergraduates, with the guidance of our graduate project manager, was responsible for the design, creation and implementation of this environmental education curriculum, focusing on Mt. Pisgah Arboretum’s natural ecosystems.
In this pilot year, we focused on kindergarten, first-, and second-grade students. Our goal was to address what Richard Louv calls ‘nature-deficit disorder’ through the creation and implementation of a place-based and experiential educational program. According to Louv, the cultural shift in which many youth now prefer to stay inside interfacing with screens, rather than going outside to play and explore, has resulted in devastating effects on their personal well-being – physically, mentally, and emotionally – in addition to having disastrous repercussions for the environment. How we set about addressing nature-deficit disorder was informed by Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and David Sobel’s work, which outlines a framework for age-appropriate content. Working from this theoretical foundation, we knew we wanted to allow students to explore nature first-hand to help them develop a connection to where they lived, and nurture empathy for the plants and animals that share our bioregion. In addition, the structure of our program was influenced by the Tbilisi Declaration (1977), which states that environmental education should foster awareness, provide knowledge, develop skills, and shape attitudes in students so they can effectively participate in environmental decision making and stewardship. This idea of restoring children’s connection to nature, while they participated in restoring the land, was a central idea of the program.
The structure of our Restoring Connections program consisted of a 45-minute classroom visit on Tuesday, followed by an all-day field trip on Thursday. The classroom lessons focused on introducing key concepts, preparing the children for a successful field trip, and most importantly, instilling a sense of excitement and awe for the ‘magical forest’ they would be visiting. The field trip focused on awakening their senses, building connections and empathy, and finally, on giving students an opportunity to be involved in restoration activities.
During the field trip the kinders built elf and fairy homes out of natural materials in the wildflower garden, engaged their visual senses by finding a rainbow of colors, and engaged their auditory senses by using their ‘deer ears’ as they journeyed along the riverbank.
First-grade students explored the oak savanna, discovering how pollinators and native plants interact in this habitat. Students examined an Oregon white oak up close and played games that honed their observation and plant identification skills. The restoration work focused on creating habitat for native wildflowers by pulling invasive shining geranium, and planting native plants. Through this restoration work, students learned about native and non-native species and the importance of stewardship.
Second-grade students explored the Douglas-fir forest, studying concepts of camouflage and adaptation through role play and the study of animal behavior. Their restoration work was centered around building “habitat hotels” for decomposers found in the Douglas-fir forest.
The restoration work connects classroom learning to real-life experiences. By learning the differences between native and non-native plants, our first-grade students discovered the need to care for native species in Oregon. Gaining knowledge about the role of decomposers in the Douglas-fir forest allowed the second-grade students to understand ecosystem functions. These activities provided an example of the impact that they can have on the environment.
Throughout our ten weeks of teaching, over 200 students had the opportunity to visit and explore Mt. Pisgah. As part of our professional development, we were asked to evaluate what worked and what needed to be changed after each interaction, and then make those changes for the following week. Jenny Laxton, the education program coordinator at Mt. Pisgah, provided us with invaluable feedback to help us improve our program to best serve the needs of the Arboretum and Adams students and staff.
The opportunity to complete service work allowed the elementary students and our ELP team the opportunity to take the knowledge and skills we have gained in the classroom and use them in community action. We gained problem-solving and team management skills along with greater knowledge of best practices within environmental education. We were also encouraged to engage in critical self-reflection to improve our final outcomes.
The long term vision for this project is that starting next year, the Restoring Connectionsteam will work with a single cohort of children, from kinder through fifth-grade.This cohort of children will visit Mt. Pisgah Arboretum each season (fall, winter, spring) giving them multiple opportunities to visit, connect, and participate in restoration work. Each grade level will focus on exploring a different habitat located within the Arboretum, with activities geared toward hands on learning. By giving children an opportunity to be outside, learning in nature, we hope this project will deepen their sense of appreciation for the beauty of the natural world and reach those who may not thrive in a classroom setting. By returning each year, the children will gain an understanding of local natural history that cannot be gained through a single visit alone. By involving them in restoration efforts over time, the children will be able to witness the difference their actions have made on the landscape. Overall, Restoring Connections seeks to cultivate a lasting connection to the land, one that is based on reciprocity and respect.
To learn more about our project, please visit:https://blogs.uoregon.edu/restoring
Case Study 2 –
Canopy Connections: Nurturing Naturalists
By Samantha Bates, Laura Buckmaster, Nicole Hendrix, Forrest Hirsh, Micaela Hyams, Elie Lewis, Amelia Remington, Nick Sloss, Tim Chen (Project Manager).
ix middle-school students sit silently on a trail in an old-growth forest: one observes a newt run over her feet; another notices how moss and lichen create miniature forests; another writes poetry about the nearby sounds of Lookout Creek. Down the trail, students identify giant Douglas-firs, noting the distinct grooved bark in contrast to the smoother bark of the equally impressive western hemlocks. Using newly-honed plant identification skills, students compare two plots to form hypotheses about what stage of ecological succession they are observing. Further along, students put their compass skills to the test, going on a compass scavenger hunt of sorts, receiving a bearing and seeing if they can find the correct specific tree off the trail. Later, they will sit in a circle surrounded by enormous Douglas-fir, ancient Pacific yew, stringy western redcedar, and drooping western hemlock and draw a map of the forest with the creek as their backdrop. Meanwhile, their friends climb 90 feet into the canopy, finding treasures few ever ascend high enough to discover: dangling Lobaria lichen clinging to branches heavy with the plentiful “roses” of small, papery hemlock cones; licorice ferns growing out of decades-old moss carpets that blanket trees that students now observe from above.
Canopy Connections is in its seventh year. This year our team of eight undergraduates (and one graduate project manager), sought to distinguish ourselves by designing our curriculum around the theme “nurturing naturalists.” Drawing from Gardner’s multiple intelligences, our curriculum caters to multiple ways of knowing and different learning styles. All of our lessons focus on building sensory awareness.
The structure of our Canopy Connections program consisted of a 45-minute classroom pre-field trip visit, followed by an all-day field trip at H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest near Blue River, Oregon. The classroom lessons focused on introducing key concepts and preparing the middle-schoolers for a successful field trip. For the all-day field trip, each class was divided into four groups and rotated through four different stations.
Station 1: Climbing to the Canopy. At this station, students ascend 90 feet into the canopy of an old-growth Douglas-fir tree. Experienced tree climbers from the Pacific Tree Climbing Institute (PTCI) facilitate this activity. Students support one another in their learning about microclimates as they are connected to the ropes one by one and make their way up. While this activity is challenging for some children, the rush of adrenaline often provides them with a hyper sensitivity to their surroundings they might not have appreciated before. Many students leave this activity with a deeper respect for the sheer magnitude and magnificence of a 400-year old Douglas-fir tree.
Station 2: Nature’s Navigators. On the ground, students learned basic map reading and compass skills. Students worked in pairs, and with the help of facilitators, embarked on a compass expedition. Using their compass and species identification cards, they were tasked with locating and identifying four species of trees found in old-growth forests. They later observed the four tree species up close and collaborated to correctly identify them. Students used their new skills and knowledge to create a map of their immediate surroundings.
Station 3: The Life and Layers. At this station, students explored forest succession and disturbance. We introduced the four characteristics of an old-growth forest using the acronym OWLS–old, woody debris, layers, and snags. They then learned to identify several species seen on the forest floor. To paint a picture of how a forest becomes old-growth, we had students read a passage from Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest to each other and then look for these signs as they hiked. Through descriptions of nurse logs and pathogenic fungi, they gained an appreciation for the intricate relationships of the forest and began to consider the significance of observation for scientists and writers alike.
We encouraged students to touch the plants, compare, and describe them to each other in order to create detailed records in their field notebooks. Splitting into two groups, they examined plots located in stands of different aged forests, with the goal of using their new knowledge, observation, and recording skills to determine whether they were looking at the 40-year stand or an old-growth stand.
Station 4: Stop, Sit, Scribble. At this station, students practiced their writing skills, imitating the work done by the writers of the Long Term Ecological Reflections (LTER) project, which is designed to collect stories, poems, and essays for 200 years from 2003 to 2203. After listening to The Web, a poem written at HJA by Alison Hawthorne Deming, students followed the guiding principles of the LTER project and spread out on the forest floor to begin writing a stanza for a collaborative poem. They focused on incorporating sensory observation skills and using descriptive adjectives as do the writings collected for the LTER project.
Although concepts of creative writing and poetry are taught in the lesson, students gain much more than an appreciation for adjectives. They learn collaboration and listening skills, while simultaneously absorbing clues from the natural world: the rush of the river, the smell of coolness in the air, the hundreds of plant species surrounding them. Sensory observation and creative writing connects with the theme of “nurturing naturalists” by bridging the gap between humanities and science.
Throughout Canopy Connection’s eight-week program, over 200 hundred students from four different middle schools participated in field trips. During nine days in the field, we totaled 54 hours of teaching with an 8:1 student-teacher ratio and led nine in-class pre-trip lessons. In addition, we worked in partnership with 23 high-school students from a local AP Environmental Literature class. These students helped us in the field, and we shared insights into going to college as well as being effective environmental stewards. Our team compiled our final curriculum and a final report, and developed a website to display our project. We presented our findings at the Undergraduate Research Symposium, a SMILE workshop at HJA, and an ELP final presentation. Our ultimate mission is positive environmental change stemming from an environmentally-literate younger generation. Many teachers and students have already reached out to express how much our field trip meant to them. To learn more about our project, please visit:
Deming, Alison Hawthorne. 2007. The Web. Orion Magazine, March/April. http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/poem/248/
Gardner, Howard. 2011. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Louv, Richard. 2006. Last Child in the Woods. Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Norse, Elliott A. 1990. Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest. The Wilderness Society. Island Press: Washington D.C.
Sobel, David. 1996. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Nature Literacy Series. Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
Tbilisi Declaration. 1977. Summary of goals and guiding principles. http://www.gdrc.org/uem/ee/tbilisi.html
Forest Schools and the Benefits of Unstructured Outdoor Play
By Deanna Fahey
Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
t is snowing outside and you’re getting your child ready to go to kindergarten. While other children may be wishing for a snow day so they can play in the snow, yours is excited to go to school! Why is your child unique? Your child attends a forest school. Forest schools and nurseries are popping up around the globe and gaining momentum. Though these schools have routines that are wide ranging, they all have a common core: allowing children to experience the freedom of playing outdoors as part of their learning.
ROAD TO DISCOVERY
As a graduate student, parent and nature lover, I questioned why some adults choose to make decisions based on ecological consequences while others do not. After all, in today’s day and age, we all are aware of the consequences of our modern lives on the environment. On walks with our daughter, my husband and I spent numerous conversational hours chipping away at adult psyches trying to figure out an answer to this apparent quandary. There has to be some keystone event, I argued, in a person’s life that generates a concern for their environment as adults. During my questioning, I came across an answer. Through interviews, researchers have come to find that a direct, positive experience in nature before the age of 11 promotes a long-term connection to nature. However, given the state of today’s society, our children spend less and less time outside. What does that mean for our environmental future? It was during this time of questioning I was introduced to Erin Kenny, co-founder and lead teacher of Cedarsong Nature School. My husband had been watching Nightline when he called me in. There Kenny and parents were discussing the joys of sending their children to a forest school. I had to know more!
Friedrich Froebel opened the first kindergarten in Germany in 1837. The core of his curriculum integrated nature and play to provide children ages three to six a place to grow. Over time Froebel’s curriculum has morphed to become more academic in character and concern for children’s growth has been replaced by concern for preparation for elementary school. However, parents around the globe are uniting and fighting to bring nature back to their children. The result of this movement by parents is the reintroduction of forest schools.
Forest schools may fluctuate in their everyday routine but the core value of spending a majority of time engrossed in outdoor play remains the same. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (Ginsburg, 2006), play is essential to the well-being of children. The varied terrain of nature stimulates imagination, encourages creativity, and builds motor skills. Undirected play allows children to learn to share, work in groups and negotiate. Children involved in play face and conquer fears while self-esteem is boosted as obstacles are worked out and overcome. Play is so important to the overall health and well-being of children it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child (UNICEF).
In order for children to develop a love of nature, appropriate opportunities for interaction need to be provided. Too often in today’s society children know more about exotic flora and fauna from faraway places but have no idea of the beauty that lies right outside their own door. If children grow to adulthood with no love for, or worse yet a fear of, nature how can we expect them to become environmentally empathetic adults. According to White and Stoecklin (2008) children need to experience nature on a regular basis in order to develop pro-environmental values.
CEDARSONG NATURE SCHOOL
It was a clear morning as we drove through the forest on Vashon Island in Seattle. We were on the hunt for the elusive forest school. The sun glimmered off the dew hanging on the leaves, blinding us at times to the road ahead. Further and further we drove until at last we reached the end of the road. Where to from here though? Ah, just follow the sounds of the laughing children. We had reached Cedarsong Nature School. I was about to begin my journey into a school with no walls and where children lead the class instead of the teachers; a world virtually impossible for me to imagine but that I was eager to explore!
When I caught up with the children at Cedarsong, they were in the process of making some very delicious mud pies! The girls were covered head to foot in mud and they could not have been happier. They were standing in a circle chatting together over their work and discussing things only known to them. As I stood aside and watched, Erin Kenny, co-founder of Cedarsong, described to me how the children are the leaders of the day; their interests and observations dictate what will be learned. As a teacher myself, I questioned the logistics of this system. How does anything get covered when children decide what to learn? She told me how a random comment about tripping over a tree root can lead to a discussion on erosion and weather or the purpose of the roots of a tree to photosynthesis. The possibilities are endless! Changing seasons bring continual opportunities to track and record growth, and discuss hibernation and even death. New observations can lead to predictions, fallen trees and fungus can stimulate conversation on decomposition which can lead to discussions about habitats and niches. Teachers, it turns out, can just stand back and observe; it is from their observations that teacher’s take their cues of where to lead.
A boy had decided to explore a bit more of the area; Kenny and I followed leaving the girls in safe sight of the teachers. As we followed the child further into the forest my “inner child” was awakened and I wanted nothing more than to climb the nearest tree or jump into one of the many puddles. My senses were stimulated by the sounds of the birds and insects calling out their warnings of strangers nearby and I desperately wanted to search out the sources of those warnings calls! However, I was there to observe the children and not to indulge my own inner child so I turned my attention back to the child we were shadowing.
Further along the path the child had found a tree to climb. Though Kenny moved a bit closer, she did not flinch or move to stop the boy. I inquired about fear of accidents given the freedom the children seem to be allotted. According to Kenny not many children do get hurt— they learn and respect their own limitations. On the rare occasion one does get hurt, there are emergency protocols that all teachers are familiar with. Teachers are certified and stay current in first aid and CPR. Kenny’s experiences with accidents are similar to those from forest schools in Europe.
Marga Keller is the founder of WaKiTa, a forest daycare located in Zurich, Switzerland. Keller stated, “Experience shows that in forest institutions fewer accidents happen than in mainstream schools.” She clarifies, explaining that because the teachers consciously learn how to handle risks with the children and help them strengthen their own skills, the children can assess risk situations better. The children also do not feel the need to rebel against overly restrictive rules or prove their courage because the school actually puts this as part of the program: the teachers offer the children age-appropriate challenges.
Back with the main group, Kenny asked if anyone would like to lead a hike to show me the rest of the forest. All the children decided to go and we set off together. As we wandered through the forest, the children impressed me with their knowledge of the local plants and fungi. I was taken to forts and shelters camouflaged in the trees, the likes of which my own children would have gone crazy for! As we strolled on, the children dispersed to different areas of the trail and Kenny and I had another opportunity to discuss the school and the children’s role. “Children challenge themselves all the time in the outdoor setting,” Kenny told me. “They display great personal pride in their achievements.”
Each day is unique and brings new sources of inquiry and excitement! Children learn to work together and cooperate through imaginative play. According to Burdette and Whitaker (2005), when children play outdoors there is more opportunity for problem solving and creative thinking. The varied terrain and multiple stimuli which nature provides deliver the perfect environment for imagination.
As my time came to an end at Cedarsong, I felt encouraged with all that I had seen. The possibilities for incorporation of nature into the American education system seemed endless and the benefits for our future generations infinite!
Bringing Back Outdoor Play
Forest schools may seem ideal for the issues I was grappling with, but not all of our schools and children have access to nature in their backyard. Urban schools are at a distinct disadvantage for this type of schooling; however, there are schools working on solutions which could be sustainable for all urban schools. For example, Muscota New School, located in New York City, utilizes Inwood Hill Park and Bear Mountain State Park, making the most of the nearby outdoor areas available to them.
According to the California Department of Education (2011), environment-based education employs natural ecosystems as a context for learning. The “environment” may be a river, a forest, a city park, or a garden carved out of an asphalt playground.
It seems any environment can be employed as an area for incorporating outdoor play, opening doors for practical outdoor play solutions.
You cannot turn on the news today without hearing about school funding issues; yet funding concerns can be overcome through partnerships, grants and community volunteer days. Taft Elementary School in Redwood City, California, partnered with Hidden Villa, a non-profit outdoor education organization to create their school garden program. CitySprouts, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, partners with public schools to develop school gardens. Citysprouts also works to educate teachers on the integration of existing curriculum with their gardens. The Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Grant Program provides grants for large scale projects such as the “design, establishment and maintenance of a native-plant community such as prairie, woodland, wetland, etc. in an educational setting such as an outdoor classroom.”
Modifications select schools are making to outdoor immersion are providing sustainable and worthwhile results. Our children are gaining access to the outdoors, attaching to nature and initiating positive change in their well-being.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Even though forest schools may not be the catch-all answer I was looking for, they can be a viable solution to our children’s lack of outdoor play and keystone moments. For those schools without a sizable amount of accessible land, compromises can be made. Vegetable gardens are being employed to reinforce geometry sills, nutrition, life science and basic math. An extension can include cultural differences in gardening techniques and vegetable preferences as well as recipes, which of course can be utilized for basic math. Trees found on school grounds can be used to teach geometry, prediction, microhabitat, and chemistry. An ecosystem extension can be incorporated by linking with international schools to compare tree data; growth rates, circumference, etc. (sites such as Jane Goodalls – http://www.rootsandshoots.org/ are perfect for this type of linking). Logs and larger branches on the ground can be used for agility, microhabitat, decomposition, nutrient recycling, chemistry, prediction and even physics. Why are branches of similar size but different trees weigh different? Water sources – even puddles after a rain – can be used for chemistry, prediction, water analysis and physics. Have you ever wondered about the force of a foot splashing in the water and the correlation to height of the splash? Cultural stories and knowledge can be shared while observing and studying local plants. I for one have always wondered about the ability of plants to break rocks as the seeds grow. Sounds like a perfect inquiry-led question for a physics class. Ant hills can be an endless source of amusement and knowledge for younger children learning about habitat. Decomposing leaves on your school grounds can become the perfect place to discuss microhabitat, nutrient recycling and niche. Of course the simplest solution would be to get rid of the cement playground and replace it with a natural playground, one complete with grass, fallen and living trees and butterfly and vegetable gardens.
In our world today adults are making choices that are counter-intuitive to what is best for our environment. Without contact with their natural world our modern children will grow up to be less inclined to save the earth than some of us seem to be today. As adults we need to come together and give our children the access to nature they deserve. With the constraints of today a feasible solution to this problem is to bring back outdoor play to our school children!
Burdette, H. & Whitaker, R. (2005. Jan.). Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Vol. 159. Retrieved from www.archpediatrics.com at University of California – Berkeley
California Department of Education. (2011). School Garden Program Overview ; An overview of the school garden program including its impact on children’s health, nutrition, and academic achievement. Retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/nu/he/gardenoverview.asp
Ginsburg, K. (2006. May). Testimony of Kenneth Ginsburg, MS, MS Ed, FAAP on Behalf of the American Academy of Pediatricians. Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands and Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Oceans. “No Child Left Inside: Reconnectiong Kids with the Outdoors”.
Keller, M. WaKiTa Outdoor Daycare
Kenny, E. Cedarsong Nature School
Moving Outdoors in Nature Act. Retrieved from http://www.govtrack.us/congress/billtext.xpd?bill=h111-6426
Muscota New School. http://www.muscota.org/
Rymer, B. (2009. December). Taft Elementary School’s Garden Program; A Case Study. Retrieved from http://www.redwoodcity.org/manager/initiatives/gardens/helpful/Taft%20Case%20Study%20Draft.pdf
The Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Grant Program. http://www.for-wild.org/seedmony.html
White, R. & Stoecklin, V. (2008). Nurturing Children’s Biophilia: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Young Children. White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group
Tips for bringing students into the field: Strategies for success
By Joshua Klaus
Director of Academic Programs, Ecology Project International (EPI)
aking students into the field can provide an endless array of occasions to learn new skills, see theoretical concepts enacted, make connections, and learn about the world around us. Given the endless places that offer valuable learning opportunities, it must just be a matter of heading out the door for students to have impactful educational experience, right?
Though it would be nice if it were that easy, there are a few key strategies that will allow any educator (novice or veteran) to make the most of their time – before, during, and after their field experience.
Educators will have a higher likelihood of success if they keep the following things in mind:
• Go outside! The natural world offers limitless educational opportunities. Given the amount of time students spend in front of computers, screens, and isolated from weather, plants, and animals, exposure to the natural world is a fantastic way to engage students’ bodies and minds.
• Real-world projects: Involving students in applied research, service-learning, and conservation or community-related projects will give them a sense of connection to something larger than themselves.
• Find good partners: Working with established land managers, non-profit organizations, or government agencies can help provide additional resources, information, expertise, and motivation.
• Incentivize good work: Offer students school credit, lab hours, or community service credits if they meet or exceed your expectations while in the field.
• Have fun! Focusing on specific learning outcomes is a good idea, but balancing learning with fun, exploration, and freedom will increase the likelihood that students will have a positive, meaningful experience.
As the old adage instructs, failing to adequately plan and prepare often means planning for failure. Preparing students for a field experience is of paramount importance and should include setting clear expectations about goals and behavior, in addition to providing students with the tools, background, vocabulary, and knowledge necessary for success and high-quality outcomes. Advance preparation might include proper gear and equipment, safety protocols, practicing field methodology in advance, and providing a theme or integrating context for learning. At the very least, prior to heading into the field students should be given a structured opportunity to determine what they already know about a particular place or activity in addition to the chance to articulate what questions they have and what they’d like to learn. This could be as simple as asking students to draw a picture, make a list, or tell a partner what they know about a concept. Additionally, individuals could make a K-W-L chart, and the entire group could share the information in the ‘W’ column.
Adequate advanced preparation will help students stay comfortable, safe, and well-fed! By engaging students in managing risks they might encounter in the field – whether hiking on a trail or crossing a busy street – they’ll have a better understanding of the potential dangers they’ll encounter as well as the rationale for making appropriate decisions that will help keep them safe. When students understand why they should do something (instead of just being told they should) they’ll cultivate a deeper sense of ownership and personal responsibility.
Collaboration/ maximizing resources
Many organizations, government agencies, and companies are more than willing to host a group of visiting students. Call the local fisherman to take a tour of his boat, approach the university about a tour of the wet lab, or ask a conservation group to give an on-site presentation to your class about their restoration projects. Experts often love to talk about what they do and are happy to share their knowledge with students. When teaching in Oakland, CA one teacher took his physics class to a boat yard a couple blocks away and a crusty sailor taught them about mechanical advantage and pulley systems used for dry docking and offloading cargo. When the Pixar Studio in nearby Emeryville was under construction, his students crawled around the open foundation with a bunch of engineers who were delighted to tell them all about how they designed the building to withstand a 9.0 earthquake. Think creatively about what you consider a ‘field’ experience, and likely you’ll discover a long list of wonderful opportunities right within your community.
The wheel already exists
Talk to your local conservation group, nature center, government agency, or tourist outfitter about what you would like to do and ask if they can help. Many of these groups have some kind of educational mandate associated with their work, and if you can help them achieve their goals by involving your students in their work, they will likely be accommodating.
Go for it!
For beginning teachers, it’s a great idea to keep things simple until you establish a track record of success with your students and within your community. Start with small, accessible field experiences before making too large a commitment. That being said, despite the importance of preparation (as described above), don’t over-think your first field experiences. Once you’ve covered your bases and the basics, it really can be as simple as heading out the door. The world awaits, so don’t worry – once you get there, your students will thank you.