Connecting Kids with Nature
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.
Connecting the Outside With the Inside
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.
Beyond the Classroom
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!”
Students Think It’s Cool
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.
Outdoor Classroom Grants
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.