NatureBridge Takes the Classroom Outdoors: Inspires Teachers and Students Through Discovery
by Karen West
“The future will belong to the nature smart… the more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.”
– Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder’’
Jeff Glaser stood at the base of Madison Creek Falls in Olympic National Park, taking in the beauty of the water cascading 76 feet. As he hiked back toward the Elwha River, he recalled his nature-filled childhood, packed with camping, hiking and fishing trips throughout the Pacific Northwest.
He couldn’t help comparing the wilderness adventures of his youth to experiences of today’s generation, many of whom are growing up in an over-scheduled, technology bubble. “I love getting my students off their devices and into the natural environment where they can breathe, stretch and grow,’’ says Glaser, who teaches sixth grade math, science and religion at St. Louise School in Bellevue, Wa.
Glaser was one of more than a dozen teachers participating in a four-day professional development summer workshop at NatureBridge, an environmental education nonprofit with a campus in Olympic National Park on the shores of Lake Crescent. With environmental science at its core, the workshop was an example of how NatureBridge provides educators with training, resources and curriculum to help prepare their students to be the next-generation of environmental stewards.
The teachers from Washington, Oregon, California and New Jersey spent the week exploring marine and lowland forest ecosystems in Olympic National Park including the lower Elwha River watershed. NatureBridge educators, Olympic National Park assistant superintendent and rangers, and data driven scientists provided insight into how science, technology, engineering, and math skills inform decision making and management of this one million acre park.
In final projects, teachers in the workshop collaborated with their grade-level peers to submit classroom content for publication on the National Park Service’s K – 12 education site. Inspired by his visit to Rialto Beach, Glaser created a lesson plan focused on marine plastics – Where does the debris come from? What happens to it? And how much is generated?
“Many kids today don’t have these experiences – some don’t know their trees or their national parks,’’ says Glaser, whose parents integrated nature into his life-long learning. “It’s not just kids who are missing out on nature experiences. As teachers, we need to step it up and show our students these things.’’
The educational workshop is just one way NatureBridge collaborates with the national park to inspire teachers and students through critical-thinking skills, hands-on scientific research and inquiry-based learning.
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Letting Kids Get Their Hands Dirty
Founded in 1971 as Yosemite Institute, NatureBridge serves over 30,000 young people from more than 700 schools each year at its six national park campuses: the valleys of Yosemite, the watersheds of Washington’s Olympic National Park, the peaks of the Santa Monica Mountains, the marine sanctuary of the Channel Islands, the coastal hills of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and the piedmont forest of Washington, D.C.’s Prince William Forest.
No matter what grade level or type of school, many of the teachers who go through a NatureBridge program all leave with the same discovery: Kids get excited about environmental science when they are immersed in a living, outdoor laboratory where they can become scientists in the field – and not worry about making mistakes.
“It’s all about discovery,’’ says NatureBridge educator Josh McLean, during a recent Elwha Exploration Day event. He says it’s more important for kids to think about and create questions than answering them correctly, adding that the most rewarding experiences often come when students are feeling out of their comfort zone.
“The struggles build our ability to persevere and find new knowledge,’’ McLean says, throwing in his favorite quote from poet William Blake who once said, “it’s the crooked paths that are the paths of genius.’’
NatureBridge offers three- to five-day residential programs primarily targeting students in grades 4–12. Olympic National Park is a place where kids and adults aren’t afraid to step in the mud. Students get to hold slimy salamanders, hike in an old growth forest or even touch snow for the first time. They walk across the bottom of what used to be a 60-foot deep lake conducting experiments like real-world scientists, touch springboard notches on tree stumps that were cut down 100 years ago and stand on a 210-foot slab of concrete that once was a dam.
“I can’t think of a better way to teach kids about nature,’’ says Stephen Streufert, vice president of education and Pacific Northwest director at NatureBridge. “By letting kids get their hands and feet dirty in outdoor classrooms, students acquire a deeper understanding of their environment and often begin a lifelong interest in science.’’
NatureBridge Changes Lives
Just ask high school senior Marisa Granados, NatureBridge’s 2018 Student of the Year. Before I had the opportunity to travel to Olympic National Park, I had begun to feel discouraged about the impact I really could make in the world.’’
Inspired by her first school trip to NatureBridge, Granados embarked on a 14-day NatureBridge Summer Backpacking program in 2017 that gave her renewed confidence in her ability to thrive and make a difference: “I was able to gain the confidence to speak up about what I wanted to do with my life. By gaining a stronger relationship with nature and discovering a deeper part of myself, I now see the influence of my actions and the amount of power that I have in creating change.’’
With the support of the U.S. Forest Service, she developed a handbook and curriculum for middle school students to learn and apply environmental stewardship effectively in her home state of New Mexico. She hopes to pursue a career in environmental engineering and outdoor education.
Granados is just one of thousands of students who has worked like a true scientist collecting and analyzing data in the Olympic National Park.
“There’s a mysticism around here that makes everything magical,’’ says Ingraham High School senior Jonathan Mignon on a recent scientific exploration in the Olympic National Park. “This is a place where you get sense of wild, untamed nature that speaks to me. It makes everything more tangible. You’re not only learning it but you’re feeling it.’’
When students hike in the Elwha River watershed, they don’t just hear that obstructions to river passage has changed, they see first-hand that salmon are now able to swim upriver and spawn in cobbled pools miles upriver from where the dams used to be. Students become part of the dam restoration story practicing scientific inquiry and critical thinking to understand complex issues associated with engineered environmental change.
“They think like scientists testing the quality of water, then transform into politicians, activists and concerned citizens engaging in debates about how the river and its salmon are managed,’’ says Streufert.
Students also get first-hand lessons in stewardship. “They learn that, for the Elwha dam removal to be successful, people had to listen, to engage with those they did not always agree with and to ultimately act, with multiple stakeholders and multiple outcomes in mind,’’ says Katie Draude, NatureBridge summer backpacking manager.
Bringing Back the Elwha
The Elwha Valley, where two dams were removed between 2011 and 2014, is a fertile learning environment for educators and students. The Elwha River Restoration Project – to date the largest dam removal in U.S. history – is one of the key areas of study for students visiting NatureBridge’s Olympic National Park campus. The $325 million National Park Service project entailed tearing down the 108-foot Elwha Dam and the nearby, 210-foot Glines Canyon Dam and restoring the river watershed.
Over the last several years, NatureBridge students have literally watched the river be reborn, recording its long and storied history.
The dams, the first of which was built in 1911, served their purpose of fueling regional growth by supplying much-needed electricity for the local timber and fishing industries. Though state laws required that construction of any kind allow for fish passage, both dams were built without it. But in 1992, after years of protest by many local tribes, lobbying and citizen outcry, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, which authorized dam removals. It took nearly two decades of bureaucratic wrangling before deconstruction began in 2011.
Meanwhile, the damage had already been done. The dams put a 100-year chokehold on migration of salmon just five miles upstream along the 46 mile river, disrupted the flow of sediment and wood downstream, and flooded the historic homelands and cultural sites of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.
In its heyday, the Elwha River was home to one of the largest year-round salmon and steelhead runs of any river on the Olympic Peninsula and supported all five species of Pacific salmon. “People who were riding their horses up the trail just upstream from the river couldn’t cross,’’ Pat Crane, a longtime biologist for the Olympic National Park, told the professional development workshop teachers as they sat on what used to be the bottom of Lake Aldwell. “The horses refused to cross the creek because there were so many pink salmon in the creek.’’
That was in the late 1800s and 1900s, before there was electricity in Port Angeles and when steamboats were the region’s primary means of transportation – and before the dams were built. Back then, Crane estimates an average of 120,000 salmon came back to the river every year to spawn. “But by the time we go around to dam removal, we had between 100 and 200.’’
Today, the river, which flows from its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the National Park Service history – unleashing more than 70 miles of salmon habitat.
In September 2014, the first reported sighting of Chinook in the Elwha River above where the Glines Canyon Dam came down was confirmed, and they have slowly been returning ever since. In fact, as Crane was talking with the teachers during their workshop, he noticed a small stream near the river where dozens of baby salmon were gathering. “The fish are gambling they will be safe here,’’ Crane told the group. “They are safe for now but if the water dries up or a heron comes by, they could die.”
To kickstart the river’s recovery and help manage a century of accumulated sediment, Forest Service crews are planting 400,000 native plants and more than 5,000 pounds of native seed in the reservoir basins. But biologists say it could take a generation or more to heal.
What if We Taught Baseball the Way We Teach Science
Research shows that environmental outdoor education sparks student interest, helps improve academic performance and builds confidence. A Stanford University study measuring the impacts of environmental education for K-12 students showed that environmental education helps students enhance critical thinking skills, develop personal growth and increase civic engagement.
An educator in the Stanford study commented: “In my 20 years of teaching before using the environment-based approach, I heard, ‘Why are we learning this? When are we going to finish?’ And now when we are out in the field and sorting macroinvertebrates, for example, I have to make them stop after four hours for lunch. And then they say, ‘We don’t want to!’”
A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that the average eight to 18-year-old American now spends more than 53 hours a week using “entertainment media”, up from 44 hours five years ago.
“When you think about the pressures of youth today and the kinds of things they are dealing with their families and teachers, their primary interface is screens,’’ Streufert recently told a group of educators, donors and community leaders.“We know that the average time of kids outside on any given day is about seven minutes – that includes structured play (soccer practice) and unstructured play (playing out in the woods).’’
To illustrate the importance of hands-on learning, NatureBridge educator McLean recalls the writings of UC Berkeley professor Alison Gopnik, who believes “children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative.” In her book, The Gardner and the Carpenter, Gopnik asks, “imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science.”
McLean says it would go something like this: “In kindergarten or first grade we might bring a baseball into the classroom. You could look at it but not touch it—it might be dangerous… And if you got to the sixth or seventh grade level, now you can roll the ball across the room or perhaps swing a bat as long as you are well away from everyone else. In high school, with close, coach supervision, maybe you have an interview with a famous baseball player or maybe re-enact a play from some famous game. And it’s not until undergraduate level in college that you play a game of baseball. If we taught baseball that way, we would expect to see the same level of success in Little League that we currently see in our science classrooms – it’s not high.’’
In her book, Gopnik answers her question by saying: “learning to play baseball doesn’t prepare you to be a baseball player—it makes you a baseball player.’’
The same is true in environmental education—if you want kids to learn, to be scientists, to be stewards, you must involve them in the process. Take them into the woods, show them the rivers, let them experience the outdoors. These are the moments that will transform them into scientists. These are the moments that will inspire them to care for the natural world—not one day, but now.
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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
Creating the Need to Pay Attention
Field trips and adventures in the woods are tremendously important experiences for children, especially those students that don’t often get to spend time in a natural setting. Some of the most important, lasting results of good Environmental Education are the heartfelt connections that young people make with nature. They value the natural world because they have experienced first hand the beauty and magic of living ecological systems. To really feel this in a personal way, the kids have to go outside and experience it.
by Chris Laliberte
he excitement of exploring outside with friends and classmates can turn a well behaved class into a pretty raucous crowd, and in all the commotion, it’s very easy for students to pay more attention to each other than to the woods around them. And while they might huddle up at each interpretive spot for a brief lesson or activity, what teacher or educator could possibly be there with each student for the whole walk, helping them learn from each moment as they explore the landscape with all their senses? The trick to making the entire outing an intense learning experience is to find ways to ensure that the students are invested in paying close attention the whole time.
“Tree Tag” is the classic example of creating a need to pay attention. Kids love to play tag, and they NEED a base, some place to avoid the tagger. So when base is whatever kind of tree the teacher calls out, the kids suddenly have a very real need to be able to identify trees correctly, so they can get to base. I love to watch what happens when kids disagree about correctly identifying trees, and they have to prove to each other what kind of tree it is. Tree Tag, however, illustrates a deeper point around creating need. A game of tag is a boisterous, wild, hectic thing. But remarkably, within this game is a fantastic heightening of awareness. The danger, the risk of being tagged, or the need to tag someone, is visceral. It creates physical and chemical responses in the body that affect awareness and the learning process. Adrenalated states provide a powerful opportunity for learning. Notice that this suggests an interesting point: in Tree Tag, the key dynamic for learning is the creation of a certain amount of anxiety, or a state of discomfort. This creates a very strong need to pay attention, and then the game focuses the heightened awareness onto something very detailed and specific — in this case, the differences in bark, leaf, branching pattern and color of different trees. By paying careful attention, the student can resolve the anxiety and get to someplace “safe.”
It’s a testament to the power of the adrenalated state that, more often than not, kids will leave base and venture back out into the fray on their own for another dose. Of course, some students will be reluctant to leave base, so the teacher can keep the game active by announcing that base is now a different kind of tree, and it starts again: more adrenaline, more awareness, more attention to details of different kinds of trees, more good learning about nature.
So how can this dynamic be harnessed so that it is present throughout the whole field trip? Here’s one method that has proved enormously powerful at Wilderness Awareness School. It’s called “Bird Language.”
The basic principle behind Bird Language is that birds love to gossip. They are constantly announcing to each other and the world around them just how they are feeling about their lives at that moment. It’s almost like a town crier who likes the job so much that s/he uses any excuse to make another public announcement. “The forest is calm and happy!” “The forest is still calm and happy!” But what birds love to talk about most of all is danger and peril. Anything that might possibly be a threat is immediately announced and pointed out. Jim Corbett, a famous tracker from India, once mentioned how puzzled he was that anyone could ever get eaten by a tiger. The birds and monkeys are so loud and aggressive in announcing the presence of any tiger, and even following along above it in the treetops, screaming out their warnings, that it seemed inconceivable to him that anyone could be taken unaware by a tiger in the jungle. By coming to understand Bird Language, students can learn to recognize all the movement and activity going on in the forest around them. They’ll know when raptors or other predators are moving through, or when animals like deer or raccoons are sneaking away.
Using Bird Language with your students starts with creating the need to pay attention to what the birds are saying. For some younger students, the possibility of seeing fairies or unicorns works wonders at getting them to listen for the announcements of the birds. This is especially good if students are already uncomfortable with being outside in the woods and need a little assurance. Our favorite strategy at Wilderness Awareness School is to set up the day so that students are hiking or exploring in small groups, and might at any time be ambushed by another group sneaking up on them. If you don’t have the ability to set up the ambush dynamic, or if the group is older and more callous to the woods, the classic anxiety here in the Pacific Northwest is the threat of the cougar. Wilderness Awareness School is very careful in using this particular set-up for bird language. We let students know that cougars are sneaky but cowardly hunters, who like to attack unseen and avoid a fight or struggle. To really help students feel the anxiety in a visceral way (like the threat of being tagged), you can describe the nerve endings in the canine teeth of the cougar that help it to feel just where to bite on your neck to cleanly sever the spinal column like scissors through a banana . Now, we are careful to point out that cougars don’t normally attack people. But they sometimes can’t help themselves when a really loud, obviously unaware, small, tasty looking person hurries by without paying any attention to the woods at all. But if you notice a cougar, and make yourself look tough, maybe yell at it, then the cougar won’t bother you. They’re really pretty timid once they’ve been found out.
Regardless of what strategy you use to create a need to pay attention, listening to Bird Language can provide the focus for your students’ heightened awareness, and will allow them to resolve their tension and anxiety appropriately. For if they are listening carefully to Bird Language, no cougar or group of kids will be able to sneak up on them without alarming the birds and giving itself away. Really accurate interpretation is a fine art, and requires a lot of practice sitting outside and investigating bird alarms, but mastery is not required for Bird Language to be a remarkably effective learning tool. Here are the basic details your students will need to know to be able to get started successfully:
Bird Language: A Quick Summary
Pay closest attention to the small ground-feeding birds: Robins, Sparrows, Juncos, Wrens, Towhees, etc. They are the best sentries.
Learn to distinguish the Five Voices of the Birds. The first four Baseline Voices indicate that the forest is relatively comfortable, and therefore “in baseline.” The last voice, the alarm, indicates a threat, usually a predator, often a human.
1. The Song: Birds singing their characteristic celebration, they are often loud but the feeling is very comfortable.
2. Companion Calling: Birds in pairs or groups call back and forth to each other regularly, either with their voice or with body movements, just to let each other know that they are alright. Usually this is soft, quiet language. It can occasionally sound scolding if one bird gets out of sight from another and fails to respond quickly enough.
3. Juvenile Begging: Young hatchlings can make quite a racket demanding to be fed. This repetitive whining may sound obnoxious, but don’t mistake it for distress.
4. Territorial Aggression: Generally made by males, this is loud, aggressive language that can sound like alarms, but you’ll notice that it doesn’t bother other birds (females, or birds of other species).
5. The Alarm is dramatically different from the four baseline voices. While the baseline voices sound like someone happily whistling, the alarm sounds like someone yelling for help. Different species sound different, but they all sound terribly upset, worried and nervous, and you’ll find yourself feeling that way too, when you open yourself up to really listening receptively to birds.
Watch the body language of alarming birds:
1. Where does it go when it alarms?
Does it fly up higher into the branches, or down low to the ground? Ground-feeding birds are typically brown, so they like to be down low where they are camouflaged and hidden. The only reason they fly UP is if there’s a threat on the ground. They will fly just high enough to avoid the danger, so how high up they fly is a good indicator of how high the danger can reach. If they go down, it’s because they’ll be safer down low in the thick brush, so it’s either a raptor or a threat that can’t get into the bushes (like a human).
2. Does the bird fly up and then look back to where it came from as it alarms?
If so, it was scared out of its place by something close by on the ground. Does it fly up and look forward, or out and around? If so, it was probably startled by a sound or another bird’s alarm and it is looking for the danger. It usually looks towards the source of the alarm (remember, these birds often look sideways).
3. Does it just fly madly away alarming as it goes? If so, it has been “plowed” out of the area, quite likely by a human.
Those are the very basics of Bird Language; however, the most important aspect of all is the “Secret Lesson” that you don’t even talk about. By attending to bird alarms, students soon realize that they themselves are disturbing the “baseline” of the forest. One of the old sayings from Kenya that young kids heard constantly was “Never disturb a singing bird.” Once they notice that they are scaring all the birds away, they begin to work at not alarming birds, and the transformation that this causes is remarkable. Once oblivious, boisterous and unconnected kids turn into quiet, observant, and respectful participants in the ecological community. Listening to birds now becomes a fabulous tool to encourage heightened awareness and a phenomenal source for amazing close encounters with animals that they want to see, like elk, deer, foxes, and raccoons, because now the birds aren’t warning these animals of the approaching students five minutes before they arrive.
In Wilderness Awareness School’s experience, Bird Language works best initially as the focal point for new students who have been “set up” to pay attention by the cultivation of a state of discomfort, and quite literally gives students the awareness they need to be safe, aware and feel comfortable in the woods. Remember, it will take some time to establish this as a routine for your students. They’ll need plenty of reminders early on. The most effective one is simply “Ssshhh! What was that? Did you hear that alarm?” Above all, have fun with it! You’ll be amazed at the transformation Bird Language can work in your students if you just stick with it.
Chris Laliberte is the Program Director for Wilderness Awareness School, a national not-for-profit environmental education organization based in Duvall, WA which is “dedicated to caring for the earth and our children by fostering appreciation and understanding of nature, community and self,” on the web at http://www.WildernessAwareness.org
Resources for Bird Language Study
The Language of the Birds and Advanced Bird Language: Reading the Concentric Rings of Nature, beginning and advanced audio series by Jon Young. Available at http://www.WildernessAwareness.org
Backyard Bird Walk and Marshland Bird Walk, and other recordings by Lang Elliott. Available at http://www.naturesound.com
Kamana One: Exploring Natural Mysteries, by Jon Young, part one of Wilderness Awareness School’s four-level independent study Kamana Naturalist Training Program. Includes bird language, tracking, wilderness living skills, traditional herbalism, and naturalist mentoring. Available at http://www.WildernessAwareness.org
Jungle Lore, by Jim Corbett. A powerful narrative from the Indian jungle which includes Bird Language lore.
Bird Tracks and Sign: A Guide to North American Species, a unique new resource for studying birds by Mark Elbroch , Eleanor Marks, and Diane C. Boreto.
A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vols. I,II, and III, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.
Peterson Field Guides: Western Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson.
A Birds World, permanent exhibit on Bird Language at the Boston Museum of Science. http://www.mos.org