Conservation and Country Schools

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Published on: May. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

folks years to recognize the hard truth that woods are not good pastures and that cows are terrible foresters. We did our best to get that message across in one-room schools. Yet we have since learned that the burning of certain lands, under carefully timed and controlled conditions, can actually improve habitat for wildlife. Practical conservation is a never-ending learning process.

My visits to schools, though routinely tiresome, did open other doors. Prior to 1960, teachers could participate in a program known as the Missouri Nature Knights, based somewhat on the Boy Scout merit badge system. The program rewarded rural youngsters for learning about and practicing good conservation. Teachers and 4-H leaders depended on me to help with this program.

Each spring the Conservation Department asked me to deliver seedling trees and supervise the kids planting them on school grounds. I learned that there is no hands-on conservation lesson better than planting trees.

As an itinerant conservationist, I often was called upon to present evening programs at one-room schools. On one such occasion my talk and conservation movie was preceded by a box supper aimed at raising funds for classroom supplies. As tradition dictated, girls of various ages placed their gift-wrapped meals on the teacher's desk for auctioning. Boys then had to bid competitively for the chance to share the meal. As an outsider who had eaten earlier, I watched with detached amusement until the teacher talked me into bidding for a certain box. The teacher said the girl who brought it was much too shy to attract bidders. So I placed my bid and, though the girl was indeed too shy for making conversation, I do recall that her pecan pie was quite tasty.

During a period of three years, I made six visits to a one-room school whose teacher was a Nature Knights sponsor and true devotee of conservation. The extent of his devotion became clear to me when he requested a conservation program for the community's annual Christmas party. When I was about to enter the schoolhouse, three men stopped me at the door and told me that I would have to be Santa Claus.

There was no escape. The men led me to the woodshed, helped me get padded and costumed, presented me with a sack of candy and told me to wait for a signal. It was cold out there, so when they beckoned, I rushed in with a loud "Ho! Ho! Ho!" I asked all the kids if they'd been good and threw them candy. Well into my act, I patted the teacher on his bald head and asked the kids if he had been good. Everyone cheered wildly. When the party was over, I finally showed a film about wildlife. It was, I hasten to boast, the performance of my lifetime-and all for conservation.

Some of the ungraded one-room schools were better than others, but in all of them, teachers had at least one advantage: Nature was just outside their doorstep and the kids could observe it daily. Most of the kids grew up on farms and had their roots in the soil.

Today's schools have many material advantages over the schools of the past, but they face the difficulty of instilling respect for land, nature and the outdoors in children from suburbs and cities, rather than farms. It's harder for these kids to connect to the outdoors.

The Conservation Department's education consultants continue to bring lessons about the natural world and its importance to classrooms. They work with teachers to develop "natural" curriculums and make available study materials.

You can help, too. There is probably no better way to get children interested in the outdoors than to have a parent or relative take them fishing or camping or just for a walk in the woods. Kids and nature get along fine, once they are introduced to one another.

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