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Learning about nature from the ground up

April 25, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

tammyb@herald-mail.com

It's not often that a teacher instructs a first-grader to get dirty.

But then, it's not every day that first-graders go to class outside.

Students in Barbara Newcomer's class at Greencastle-Antrim (Pa.) Primary School spent a sunny Monday afternoon at the adjacent Tayamentasachta Center for Environmental Studies learning about nature - from the ground up.

Student teacher Jennifer Williams, nearing graduation from Shippensburg (Pa.) University, led the children on a nature hike that gave them a hands-on earth lesson. Early on the agenda: a discussion of where soil comes from.

Soil, she explained, actually comes from dead things. "Decompose - everybody say it with me," she directed, and the class enthusiastically complied. Then, she directed them to five "sinks" filled with dirt and told them to wash their hands in them.

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"I don't want to see a clean hand in the place," Williams said. "And if you find a worm, you make sure to tell me; because ... I like to play with them."

Educators throughout the Tri-State area are proving that education doesn't have to be confined to a classroom. Like Greencastle-Antrim's Tayamentasachta Center, Washington County's Fairview Outdoor School in Clear Spring routinely hosts students from the schools in the county system.

But outdoor learning doesn't necessarily mean a field trip.

"I think that instruction in the real world is remembered better," said Katharine DeSarno, a fifth-grade teacher at Bester Elementary School in Hagerstown. Last week, DeSarno's students went outside for a "beach buddy day" with kindergarten students. They listened to ocean sounds and beach music and read aloud - and the older students helped the younger ones with a writing assignment.

Going outside "gets their oxygen going," DeSarno said.

With a little creativity, teachers can find ways to incorporate the outdoors in a number of different academic subjects. DeSarno said that while her students were learning about perimeters in math class, she took them outside and had them "pace" areas around Bester to calculate the perimeter. They also have participated in conservation activities, she said.

Their time outdoors "definitely relates" to their class work, DeSarno said. "We never just go outside. The kids are applying (their lessons) in ways they can remember."

Science courses particularly lend themselves to outdoor learning, said Wayne Bennett, an eighth-grade science teacher at Hedgesville (W.Va.) Middle School. Whether it's nature hikes or "stream sampling" for ecology lessons, taking the students out of the classroom sometimes can enhance their learning experience.

"I like to take a hands-on approach to science," Bennett said.

Last fall, Bennett gave his students an engineering lesson by instructing them to design and build rockets out of two-liter soda bottles. They had to calculate the most efficient mix of air pressure and water to fuel the rockets and be "creative with the design," Bennett said, adding fins and, in some cases, parachutes. On launch date, the students took their rockets outside, started their countdown and watched as their creations shot skyward.

Based on the time the rockets spent airborne, they had to calculate how high the rockets flew - sparking a little competition between classmates.

"We didn't have too many mishaps," he reported.

The unconventional classroom of the outdoors is a natural fit - "especially with the weather in the 70s and 80s; they're wanting to be outside," Bennett said.

In the coming weeks, he said he plans to give his students a chance to "see if they can improve on last fall's design."

As those Greencastle first-graders got down and dirty, Williams instructed them develop their sense of smell by sniffing various articles of nature - but within reason.

"You can try to sniff an ant," she warned, "but don't let it get up your nose."

Teaching first-graders at the Tayamentasachta Center allows Williams to put all of her collegiate studies to good use. She will be graduating next month with a major in elementary education and a minor in environmental education.

She thinks a little time outdoors is vital to a child's learning process.

"Sometimes, kids don't have the option to get out and see what nature has to offer," she said.

A garter snake lurking near a cabin at the center generated a little excitement among the children as they were about to conclude their back-to-nature studies for the day. Center director Charles White reassured them. "They're harmless - unless you're a cricket."

For homework, the students were instructed to share their experiences with their families and to complete the last page of the workbook they had been given when their nature walk began. Once that was accomplished, Williams said, they could continue their outdoor learning at home: The prize for completion was a packet of sunflower seeds for planting.

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