By Ellen Gawarkiewicz
High grasses engulf the children. Only exclamations hint at their location: “We found a hotspot!” “Look at the size of this one!” “A double!” They come back with their shirts pulled out like baskets, cradling orbs of vegetation. We dissect the spheres and scooped out the wriggling treasures, Golden Gall Fly larvae, eating a few to keep our energy up. The scene seems out of a fabulous journey in a far-flung land, dripping in mystery and wonder, yet it’s a five-minute walk from their elementary school.
Students joined me on adventures like this into nearby nature throughout the fall during a nature detectives—or as some students called it “bug-catching”— elementary afterschool club.
An ecological context to the general education of all students is not a new idea. In an effort to bring joy and connection to place in an increasing industrialized world, the nature study movement was born around the turn of the 20th century. Nature study pedagogy stressed the importance of knowing “the nature encountered in students’ day-to-day lives”. The movement encouraged direct contact with nature as a path to nature literacy, creativity, and analytical thinking. The nearly 900- page, Handbook of Nature Study became one of the most universal texts in the American classroom.
But the movement didn’t last. Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in 2005, amid disturbing reports highlighting the human costs of alienation from nature (e.g. studies of children being able to identify Pokemon better than their common local wildlife1; children’s unsupervised play “roaming range” shrinking 90% from 1970 to 19902 ; children spending less time outside than prisoners3 .)
Meanwhile, lepidopterist Robert Pyle uses the phrase the “extinction of experience” to characterize the loss of knowledge of and isolation from nature:
“As cities and metastasizing suburbs forsake their natural diversity, and their citizens grow more removed from personal contact with nature, awareness and appreciation retreat. This breeds apathy toward environmental concerns and, inevitably, further degradation of the common habitat… So it goes, on and on, the extinction of experience sucking the life from the land, the intimacy from our connections… people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”
Yet despite these headline stories, there are hopeful stories of efforts to invigorate student connection with nature by celebrating learning out of doors here in Burlington schools.
Burlington students are using local urban wilds as natural laboratories to measure water quality and erosion, special places in the woods to practice map-making, and student-grown pumpkins to practice estimation and addition. Burlington students are constructing forts in school forests to foster community, visiting neighborhood parks in a dedicated “explore” time block, and investigating decomposition through school-grown compost. Burlington students are spending entire school days in outdoor classrooms. Fourth grade teacher, Kimberly Brockway, has recess weekly in the woods. She writes, “I think that there are lots of important skills and subjects that I teach in 4th grade, but likely my students will not remember a regular day math lesson. I feel much more confident that they will remember winter tracking and building a fort in the woods.” Her observations echo quotes like “Children don’t remember their best day of television.” -Little Forest Folk via Twitter.
The freedom I give students to explore outside in my nature detectives afterschool club manifests in heightened concentration, attentiveness, and sense of community. The children wait, frozen like herons with their nets raised, for the perfect moment to scoop a frog. They boost each other up trees and hold hands bouncing on logs. They howl together in awe as they feet the wind and spray of the lake. Our outdoor ramblings are an antidote to mindlessness – encouraging actively noticing new things with engagement, curiosity, and wonder. We never know what we will find, and it was humbling and inspiring to be confronted with just how much we don’t know. Everyday we discover marvels we didn’t see the day before – a fat toad snuggled in the leaf litter, a mummy-like moth pupa encased in bark, those wriggling treasures of Goldenrod Gall Fly larva – hiding in plain in sight.
Today Burlington schools are revitalizing the nature study movement of a century ago. Liberty Hyde Bailey wrote in 1909, “Nature-study will endure, because it is natural and of universal application. Methods will change and will fall into disrepute; its name will be dropped from the curriculums; here and there it will be encased in the school master’s “method” and its life will be smothered; now and then it will be overexploited; with many persons it will be a fad: but the spirit will live.” And here in the Queen City the spirit lives on.
1 Balmford, A., Clegg, L, Coulson, T., Taylor, J, (2002). Why conservationists should heed Pokémon. Science, 295, 2367.
2Hillman, M., Adams, J., Whitelegg, J., & Policy Studies Institute (Great Britain). (1990). One false move–: A study of children’s independent mobility. London: Policy Studies Institute.
Photo of kids by Gary Peeples/USFWS