The following article was printed in the Eagle Times on April 27, 2018 and in the eTicker News of Claremont, Section A, page 26 on April 30, 2018.
There is more to learn outdoors than science, literature, and social studies. Students and teachers from Charlestown Middle School use their outdoor classrooms as places to build community and empower students.
This was evident when 2nd graders from Keene took a field trip to Charlestown Middle School and joined the 7th graders for their bi-monthly Clay Brook field day. The 2nd graders were partnered with 7th graders who were to look out for their safety and learn with them at each rotation. This was a great opportunity for them to mentor others, practice kindness and take on more responsibility.
Some of the 7th graders even taught the 2nd graders and their peers. Kathleen and A
bby led a kinesthetic activity focused on how sap movement in trees is based on the air and ground temperatures. The 2nd graders were tuned into details, so they helped the 7th graders see things that may not otherwise have noticed like a small patch of fur on the snow or a chipmunk tunnel in a stump.
These students know there is more to learn outdoors than science, literature, and social studies. They learn how to interact peaceably with each other and the earth, fostering a mindset of stewardship. They get physical exercise and time to be in nature, which research shows improves mental health. They see each other and their teachers with a new perspective as they all become teachers and learners.
Charlestown Middle School teachers and administrators have been instrumental in providing these kinds of opportunities for their students to connect with one another, the curriculum, their communities, local organizations, and students in other communities in genuine ways.
When the 6th grade teachers noticed the sense of community the 7th grade had created, they made plans to identify and visit their own field site. So once a month, they head down to the Connecticut River to observe and explore the area.
They start every site visit by sitting in their own special spots, recording observations through writing and drawing.
One day, when there was still snow on the ground, a group of boys found a hollowed out log and crawled inside for warmth. This naturally attracted the attention of other students, so the next month there were more students leaning up against the log or sitting on top of it, claiming a piece of the tree for themselves. A woodcock had the same idea and was flushed from a pile of leaves under the tree during the April visit. This hollow log, which had previously gone unnoticed, has become a place of community for these students, a place of excitement and laughter, a place of learning and discovery.
“Establishing a connection with ‘place’ is a life lesson that can stay with us forever,” Kathy Olsen, a 6th grade teacher, reflects. “It can compel us to return, to share our place with others, and to foster a broader sense of community, hopefully resulting in community involvement on a larger scale in their future. I can see evidence of this happening now with these sixth graders in their writings and their conversations.”
When asked what they have learned from their monthly outings, the students wrote the following:
“I live not so far away so I can come down here -- that tree is MY place, and a place of happy.”
“There are amazing things waiting out there to be discovered like the tree I could go inside or the tree that I could lay on.”
“Before we started going to the boat landing this year, I’d never been before. I love seeing the river and all of the nature. My favorite thing to do is to just sit there and draw.”
“When we were drawing it made it feel like I can draw anything.”
Kathy Olsen noticed that their trips to the river allow the students to, “strengthen as a community, ending in just life inspiration, for everything.”
As students connect to other people and the world around them, they build bonds that support their mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. They become more resilient people, able to better bounce back from the struggles and trials of life and better able to celebrate the joys and successes. And as we know, most students these days have many struggles and are looking for a place to belong and find moments of peace in a busy world. A hollow tree might just be the perfect place to ground oneself in the present and find joy in life despite the many trials.
The Sullivan County Conservation District supports learning in outdoor classrooms and conservation education. Please contact Dawn Dextraze at email@example.com or 504-1004, if you are interested creating opportunities for building community.