“Eeek, what’s that?”
“Hey, look what I found!”
“This is so cool!”
Truman Elementary School is in Rolla, in the midst of a rapidly growing urban area along the I-44 corridor. Most of these students would have few outdoor nature experiences if it were not for the school’s efforts to create and use an outdoor area for learning.
“Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore, for learning and creativity,” Richard Louv wrote in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
Kids and nature seem a natural combination, but what seemed like a perfect match a generation ago is not happening today.
There are plenty of reasons why kids are not connecting to nature. Fears about strangers and traffic keep kids indoors. TV and computer screens command their attention. Organized activities and homework leave them little time to explore the outdoors.
“We are often so busy with our own lives that we don’t pay attention to what is around us when we go outside,” said Shelly Fouke, a teachers’ aide at the school. “An outdoor classroom like Truman’s Backyard helps us refine our senses and see what is going on around us, above us, and under our feet.”
Many Missouri kids learn much of what they know about nature from television. That’s why during classroom discussions of snakes, for example, kids are more likely to talk about anacondas and boa constrictors than any of the species native to Missouri. At Truman Elementary School, however, students have actually seen Missouri’s snakes, along with Missouri’s turtles, snails, bugs and lizards and a variety of other animals.
Recent research shows that outdoor exploration is a necessary component of a healthy childhood. Outdoor activity also can have a calming effect (particularly on those diagnosed with ADHD and other disorders), reduce obesity and relieve pressures that lead to depression.
Many schools across Missouri have built outdoor classrooms to stimulate learning while developing a love of nature. The students at Truman have taken ownership of their project from the very beginning. They started by having a school-wide election to name their outdoor classroom.
Since then, students have designed and mapped the trails (with the help of the USGS) and named the paths for famous Missourians, Missouri state symbols or famous locations in the state.
On one of the newest trails, Wilder Way, summaries created and illustrated by the students depict stories and the history of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the “Little House” series of books while living in Mansfield.
The area’s 1-acre prairie was cleared of trees, and the students planted it one cupful at a time. Students also improved the forest and school grounds by selecting and hand-planting tree species that benefit wildlife.
“If you take care of your plants, the animals can have good habitat and will come in your yard,” a student said.
The faculty at Truman Elementary School eagerly jumped on board. They developed curricula for outdoor classroom workshops that are tied to the state’s grade-level expectations. Three of the newest faculty-designed projects at Truman’s Backyard include a decomposing log, a food chain/web weaving game and a life-cycle table.
Learning outdoors helps students gain a better understanding of the natural world and score higher on state achievement tests.
“The outcome is better than in a regular classroom,” reports third-grade teacher Joyce Knapp. “With some children you just lose their attention in the regular classroom, but the outdoor classroom picks them up. They are sensory-awakened, and they have better carry-over of the concept being taught.”
Teachers use Truman’s Backyard as a place for students to study landforms, measure distances, observe plant roots, stems and leaves, practice mapping skills by finding cardinal directions on the compass rose and create and interpret maps.
Experiences in the Backyard also serve as inspiration for writing and reading. One budding author said, “We got to go on a hunt, and then we got to write about it!”
The outdoor classroom also helps with discipline. “Students maintain their high interest in the activity and are motivated to do well so they can go again to the outdoor classroom,” explains Tonya Lewis, second-grade teacher. Other teachers note that students’ behavior is improved even hours after returning indoors.
An after-school enrichment program, the Outdoor Kid Environmental Club, helps students learn about wildlife sustainability while maintaining the forest, wetland and prairie ecosystems found there. The club promotes the development of a sense of stewardship and responsibility in the children.
Olivia, a member for three years, said, “It was quite amazing to learn how the animals react to their habitat and the things we do to help them feel right at home.”
Many students and their families also participate in Annual Fall Family Work Days. During last fall’s event, 75 parents and students worked on the trails, improved the forest, posted interpretive signs, collected data on wildlife and performed other activities that helped keep the Backyard in good condition for use by the classes.
One parent, marveling at the special outdoor classroom, said, “I wish I could be a student again!”
James said, “It was cool when we rolled over a dead log and saw bugs like rolly pollies and spiders.” Maggie found it interesting that when the prairie was burnt, mouse trails became visible.
“I really thought about how mice need to get away from predators, and how the tall grasses and flowers helped them to hide,” she said.
At Truman’s Backyard, students learn an extra set of three Rs. They learn responsibility, respect and reconnection. They learn responsibility by taking care of the outdoor classroom and planning for its development.
Students gain respect for nature as teachers instill in them the notion that a visit to the outdoor classroom is a visit to the home of the plants and animals that live there.
Reconnection with nature is the natural result of the kids learning about Missouri’s habitat and wildlife.
School Principal John Edgar said, “With countless hours spent learning and working in the outdoor classroom, students have ownership. This ownership fosters pride, and learning reaches a higher level.”
Outdoor classrooms can have a profound impact on the lives of children. They develop appreciation for the natural world around them, they build character, and they help turn our youngest citizens into responsible stewards of our natural resources.
The Missouri Department of Conservation and the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation have teamed up to provide grant money to schools for developing and using outdoor classrooms.
Grant money has been used for building bird feeders, planting hummingbird gardens and prairies, constructing trails, installing interpretive signs, creating rain gardens and much more. The grant application encourages the involvement of students and community groups in all aspects of developing, planning, maintaining and using the outdoor area. A clear connection with the curriculum also must be demonstrated.
Tree seedlings are available free of charge for planting on school grounds. Schools should contact their education consultant for a list of species and ordering information.
If your school needs assistance in applying for the grant or developing and using an outdoor classroom, contact the conservation education consultant for your area, or Regina Knauer, 573-522-4115, Regina.Knauer@mdc.mo.gov.
Editor in Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
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