Connecting children to nature for the benefit of both is one of our major goals. Helping them understand what it takes to keep Missouri’s animals and plants healthy is part of that. The challenge is to go beyond hopes and words and make it happen.
That’s what the new Learning Outdoors program for Missouri schools is all about. This comprehensive program from the Missouri Department of Conservation combines these key features:
1) outdoor activities for students to get hands-on experience learning about nature close to home
2) instructional units that help teachers meet testing needs (grade-level expectations)
3) grants to support field trips and provide instructional materials.
In other words, we create fun outdoor learning opportunities that support what schools need to teach and funds to help make it possible.
The first instructional unit available this year is aimed at sixth through eighth grades. Its focus is on water and the life that depends on it. We’re developing a fourth-grade unit on wildlife and habitat, as well as a high school ecology unit for biology and agriculture education classes for use beginning statewide in 2009 and 2010 respectively. Teachers, staff from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and others have been involved in creating these.
Last year was a pilot year for the first unit. Response from students and teachers has been wonderful—here are just a few:
“The students loved being outdoors.”
“The bus funding really helped.”
“When my students begin asking, 'When are we doing science?' I know they are engaged.”
“[Students] came in during free time to tie flies. ‘Cool’ and ‘Wow, I understand’ were comments I heard.”
To be really successful, though, I think it will be important to get community support in helping make the outdoor experiences work for the students. Fishing is one potential activity for the middle schools. If local parents, fishing clubs and retirees provide some help in the actual field day, then teachers will be more likely to be able to get their classes out.