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Hiking Out of the Classroom: Explorer’s Club Leaves No Child Inside By Syma Ebbin

This story has a serendipitous beginning, storybook ending, and positive outlook for producing future chapters rich in adventure. It began last year during Connecticut Trails Day.  My family and I were hiking Candlewood Ridge, newly acquired GOSA open space, with Sue Sutherland in the lead and a largish assembly of hikers following.  It was a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon in early June and the leafy canopy cast a green light over our group as we ascended the ridge. We paused to scoop up and examine salamanders and pollywogs in a vernal pool.  We paused to identify the Indian cucumber, dwarf ginseng, witch hazel and other species growing luxuriantly above and below us.  We paused to take in the expansive forested vistas, nicely open and free of the tangle of invasives to which many other Connecticut wildlands are subject.  And we breathed in the earthy, slightly vinegary smell of the damp, decomposing leaves.

Our group of hikers chatted amongst ourselves and I found myself speaking with Ben Moon, a teacher at the Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School where my boys had gone several years before.  As an avid hiker and trail runner, he told me how much he appreciated these open spaces in Groton.  He recounted a story of a recent field trip he had taken with his 4th grade class to the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center and how unnerved his students became when immersed in the woods.  They were uncomfortable and anxious, feeling out of place and scared by the possibility of the insects and animals they might encounter.

The utility and even necessity of interacting with wild places and experiencing the outside world is becoming overwhelmingly apparent as we find ourselves and our children more and more often confined    inside buildings, staring at video screens, removed from and increasingly indifferent to nature and natural things.  Richard Louv, author of the influential book, Last Child in the Woods, has called this phenomenon nature-deficit disorder. He recounts the words of Paul, a 4th grade boy in San Diego, who told him, “I like to play indoors better, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

A host of physical, mental and emotional impacts have been attributed to this increasing alienation from nature. These include obesity, various physical and emotional illnesses such as anxiety and depression, attention disorders, and difficulties as well as diminished achievement in educational pursuits. Conversely, engaging with nature challenges and inspires, keeps us in shape, stimulates our minds, sharpens our senses, awakens our curiosity, fuels our creativity, balances our lives, provides us with peace, feeds our souls, replenishes our spirits, and for some, is a primary source of spirituality.    Some of these sentiments are evidenced in Henry David Thoreau’s writings, notably in his journal for January 7, 1857 where he reports, “…in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sproutlands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer….”

In a 1984 book, E.O. Wilson outlined his thoughts on the biophilia hypothesis in which the very essence of our humanity is in fact derived from our association with other living organisms, claiming that “[w]e are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms.” Biophilia has continued to be the subject of critical examination by scholars of science and the humanities. I had the good fortune to be able to help organize and participate in a conference focused on the  biophilia hypothesis which took place in 1992 in Woods Hole, MA, and resulted in the volume of the same name edited by my doctoral advisor Stephen Kellert and E.O. Wilson.  The book explores our human dependence on nature, extending that dependence beyond the material and economic to encompass a suite of  aesthetic, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual meanings.

As a remedy to this nature-deficit disorder, Gina McCarthy, former CT Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection (now CT DEEP with the insertion of energy into its mandate and moniker), convinced Governor Jodi Rell to initiate the statewide No Child Left Inside program. The program aims to “reconnect youngsters with the outdoors, build the next generation of environmental stewards and showcase Connecticut’s state parks and forests.” (The Day, May 3, 2006)   The program hopes to improve the physical and mental health of our youth, enhance their cognitive and social development, and set the groundwork to create a generation of future voters who support environmental initiatives.

In a time of declining monetary resources, might Groton’s open spaces be used as educational      resources to combat these fears and introduce students to the natural world outside their classroom?  This is the question that Ben and I asked and attempted to answer over the course of the following few months. We communicated and met throughout the summer and fall; we brainstormed and sketched out ideas for an interdisciplinary educational program that would integrate many core subjects and entice students to feel comfortable leaving the classroom. In the end, we decided to start small, as an after-school club, and expand in the future if successful.

We developed several partnerships: the Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School (CKMS), GOSA, University of Connecticut at Avery Point, New England Science and Sailing, and the Town of Groton.  Ben was able to gain support from the leadership at CKMS, the loan of iPads, funding for t-shirts and the use of   after-school bussing for the students.  GOSA enthusiastically supported the effort and supplied funds to purchase cinch packs.  Mark Berry at the Town of Groton Parks and Recreation Department was also supportive of encouraging educational uses of the town’s open spaces and allowed us use of the department’s new logo. I created and advertized an internship opportunity for Avery Point UConn students to work with us as instructional aides on this project. We were lucky to get two terrific UConn students for this job: Sara Mindek and Sydney Marcks, senior marine science majors at the time and both now graduated. The project benefitted immensely from the avid involvement of these two former students of mine.

Ben advertised the club to 4th and 5th graders at the CKMS:

“Do you like exploring the outdoors?  Finding new trails?  Hiking?  Learning about wildlife?  Then join the CK Explorers Club!  The club is a 7 week, field trip based program that will introduce students to some of Groton’s most scenic and interesting hiking trails and wildlife habitats. Students will have access to iPads to photograph and document their experiences.  T-Shirts and transportation to the hiking sites will be provided.  Students must be picked up at school at 5:30.  There is no fee for Catherine Kolnaski students.  Join us to explore Groton Trails!”

Seven trips (six hiking and one kayak trip) were planned for Thursday afternoons in April, May and June to Haley Farm State Park, the Sheep Farm, Pequot Woods, the Merritt Family Forest, Beebe Pond, Candlewood Ridge and Esker Point Beach (kayak trip).  Over 40 students entered the lottery to be selected to participate in the CK Explorer’s Club; 15 were selected representing a mix of 4th and 5thgraders, girls and boys, different cultures and backgrounds. The students were loaned iPads and instructed on their use for photographic purposes.  Each student created a photographic portfolio of his or her experiences in the club. The children received t-shirts and cinch packs which they were able to keep.

The trips were enjoyable for everyone who participated, children and adults alike. The hikes were unstructured, with informal learning interspersed with time for student-led exploration.  Unfortunately, the time allotted flew by quickly, especially as the children meandered off the trail to investigate and photograph the emerging plants, wildlife, and the geological and water features we encountered.   One trip was cancelled due to rain, but we were able to complete the rest and the program ended on a high note, as the New England Sailing and Science team towed in a fleet of kayaks to Esker Point that we used to explore Palmer Cove and the aquatic boundary of Haley Farm.

The children absorbed and retained the information contained in our casual conversations and asked probing questions. Ben, overhearing a child ask me if plants have male and female sexes, commented that that kind of questioning would never have occurred in a classroom setting.  After teaching some of the children to identify the ferns we encountered, I was gratified to have a girl come up to me on following weeks to identify fern species, telling me “Here’s a New York fern…I can tell because it burns the candle at both ends.”

These children were not scared or unnerved by the wild woods we hiked; rather they photographed the nature encountered as well as their friends, allowed slugs and inch worms to crawl up their arms, jumped off erratic boulders, scooped up salamanders from under rotting logs and rocks, found the queen sitting on her throne at the heart of the violet, chewed on the tasty sprigs of black birch, smelled the flower of the skunk cabbage, and sucked the nectar out of the honeysuckle flowers.   These kids hiked out of the classroom and returned with a story of adventure, mastery and a broadened understanding of their world.

With a small amount of funding we cobbled this program together, but with more funding we hope to replicate this program in the future, possibly expanding the number of students who can participate, or even exporting the club to other schools in Groton.  It is nice to know that GOSA continues to expand the portfolio of open space in Groton, thereby allowing old and young explorers from Groton and elsewhere to set off on into the wild to chart their own grand adventures.

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