October 05, 2018

Mini Musings - Nurturing Future Stewards of the Environment

by Mary Kimball, Lower School Director

“Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”
― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

When I reminisce with friends about childhood, we often find ourselves talking about time freely spent in the outdoors as explorers---devising new games, playing in wooded lots, bringing make-believe to newly found spaces. Hours would pass without care to the time, until one parent or another came to hunt us down for dinner. These leisurely experiences define our most treasured childhood memories.

As an educator of three decades, I find that these types of childhood experiences have become more and more rare for children. I recently discovered The Hurried Child and Last Child in the Woods, a couple of reads that provided for me a deeper appreciation for the need of outdoor play and exploration. I recommend them both highly to anyone who would be interested in exploring this subject further. They certainly have informed our goals for the Outdoor and Environmental Education Program at the School.

At McGillis, we rigorously invest in the whole child - one way we do this is by connecting children to the outdoors. This year, for the first time, we have a full-time Outdoor and Environmental Education (OEE) coordinator, Dave Wood. Dave’s position has grown throughout the years as we have continued to place greater emphasis on outdoor education. This is an exciting new opportunity for the school - to thoughtfully build a vertically aligned program from kindergarten through 8th grade. That is, an outdoor program that gradually builds as our students progress through the program. Our current goals for the OEE program in the lower school are to create positive, educational experiences in the outdoors that provide the opportunity for students to step outside their comfort zones and create attachments to the areas we visit to become future stewards of the environment.

With these goals in mind, Dave coordinates with the Kindergarten through 2nd grade teachers to help guide their planning of short off-campus excursions. Beginning in 3rd grade, Dave provides greater support as we scaffold experiences that lead to overnight adventures. These opportunities are planned to best target students’ developmental growth throughout the lower school years, building to greater exploration and challenge in middle school.

I want to highlight some OEE comments from the third and fourth grade teachers about recent experiences and their programs:

The third grade proudly brings to life the McGillis value of Tikun Olam, repairing the world. It is our belief that to become a good steward of the environment, one must be actively engaged with it. Because we believe our classroom should not be limited to four walls, we explore the forests, mountains, wetlands, and deserts of Utah to better understand the world biomes, our social science curriculum, and ourselves. By taking third-graders out into nature, we see their curiosity explode, their bodies strengthen, their imaginations set free, and their confidence build. We see kinesthetic children, who may normally struggle in the classroom, honored. We witness collaboration and teamwork. And we observe problem solving and real natural consequences. Mother Nature continually shares her gifts with us - they are unpredictable and vast. During our recent field trip she presented herself with a gorgeous rainbow at the summit of our hike, a wasp struggling to stay alive, vibrant green moss growing, an unending carpet of fall leaves, and a hawk circling. This year we plan to continue to head outdoors. It is our goal to provide ample opportunities for our students to interact with and connect to the natural environment. We look forward to a monthly field trip with Dave Wood.

The fourth grade curriculum focuses on developing students' sense of place and purpose in Utah. Our first OEE experience this year took us to the edge of Ancient Lake Bonneville on the Shoreline Trail. We observed the benches and historic water levels that are visible around the Valley. We hiked, sketched, and imagined what it was like 15,000 years ago when our Valley was filled with a thousand feet of water. This provided students with background knowledge for our next field experience at the Great Salt Lake. This field lesson was integrated with OEE, Science, Art, and the 4th grade Utah Studies curriculum. Students observed life in the Lake, sketched watery landscapes "en plein air," created a food web, and observed wildlife on a nature hike. Both of these experiences are the first of monthly explorations of local open spaces. Our goal is to instill an appreciation for and understanding of green spaces and their benefits to our community.

We look forward to the continued evolution of this program as we strive to best meet the needs of our students, grow their investment in the environment, and, hopefully, provide the opportunity for meaningful experiences that they will remember and relish throughout their lives.