Elementary school students explore the outdoors with lessons focused on nature

Hopkins Memorial Forest teaches visiting elementary school students about nature and science each year. Photo courtesy of Drew Jones

In a few weeks, Hopkins Memorial Forest (HMF) will welcome students from elementary schools throughout Williamstown and North Adams. These visits, which occur every fall and spring, allow hundreds of students to interactively learn about the natural world from students at the College. The main participating schools are Colegrove Park, Greylock and Brayton, but others can organize trips by contacting the program managers.

This initiative began in the fall of 2013, when Director of Elementary Outreach at the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) Jennifer Swoap and Manager of Hopkins Forest Drew Jones started organizing regular student visits. Prior to the formalized program, schools and local teachers contacted Jones on an ad hoc basis to schedule visits. From 2009 to 2010, there were also occasional middle school programs held over four-day time periods.

Organizing the elementary school visits is a joint effort by Jones and Education Outreach Consultant for Elementary Outreach at CLiA Lindley Wells. First, CLiA coordinates with local schools, processes applications and administers student time reports. Jones then refines programs directly with teachers, planning a series of visits over a seven- or eight-week period.

“This program provides a space for people to be outside and helps them gain confidence,” Wells said. “Some are afraid of bugs or of mud, [and]others think they can’t hike. This creates a wonderful space for people to enjoy and connect with nature. It’s also an opportunity for College students to hone their skills [and learn] how to appreciate nature and be teachers.”

Last spring, 236 elementary  school students visited over the course of seven field trips: one kindergarten trip, three first grade trips, two third grade trips and one sixth grade trip. Five student leaders from the College, selected from a pool of eight applicants, supervised the trips over the course of the season. These leaders, known as HMF Educators, teach visiting students about the history of New England ecosystems, tree identification, biology, orienteering and geology. Activities are often customized to the visitors’ interests and are typically divided into three sub-programs. This year’s HMF leaders have not yet been finalized, but Jones expects to select four to six students for this spring. Once selected, they will begin a series of Friday morning planning and training sessions.

Activities also vary depending on the age of the children, with younger children focusing on interactive activities such as harvesting maple syrup or searching vernal pools for newts, frogs and insect larvae. They also use the 24-seat classroom in the forest as a supplement to field work. According to Jones, one of the primary challenges in developing the program has been finding activities that correspond with school curricula, which are under increasing pressure to adhere to preset standards. As a result, the program managers and student leaders have tailored lessons to fit the elementary schoolers’ science classes as closely as possible. Sixth graders study forest and landscape history, ranging from glaciation to human impacts on the land. Fifth graders cover ecosystem cycles and food webs, including the water cycle of the two watersheds in the forest. Fourth graders, meanwhile, focus on geoscience.

The program may expand somewhat in the coming years, but scheduling challenges and limited space mean that the staff cannot accommodate many more students than they currently accept.

“The current [program] is appropriate, but we would like to see it grow a little, perhaps expanding to include winter activities like animal tracking and visits to the sugar house,” Jones said. “At this point, we’re not calling for anything revolutionary, just for some changes around the margins.”

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