An outdoor classroom

Windom school partners with wildlife refuge

WINDOM — It may sound almost unbelievable to someone raised in a different time or place.

This fall, as Suzanne Trapp was leading a group of Minneapolis kindergarteners through the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, several of them told her it was the first time they’d ever been in the woods. Ever.

People like Trapp, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specialist, have been concerned for years that today’s children spend too much time indoors. As she put it, they "know more about Pokémon than their backyards."

A new partnership between the refuge and Windom Spanish Dual Immersion and Open School aims to change that, and at the same time develop a curriculum model that can be used at other urban wildlife areas.

Windom students in kindergarten through the 6th grade will make the 12-mile trip to the refuge’s Bloomington Visitor Center three times this year, in the fall, winter and spring. They’ll experience a wild, outdoor place in three seasons, maybe for the first time.

Refuge staff and Windom teachers also are working together to connect outdoor experiences with science, math, social studies and reading lessons in the classroom.

"We see the refuge as a teacher’s outdoor classroom," Trapp said.

Kevin McDonald, supervisor of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Sustainable Development Unit, helped bring the refuge and the school together.

The parent of two Windom students, McDonald said it takes more than a single field trip into the woods for an appreciation of the environment to "take root" in children. What makes the partnership special, he said, was the attempt to forge a lasting relationship between children and the refuge.

"We need to rekindle kids’ natural love of the outdoors," he said.

Building a partnership

The Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge is a 45-mile corridor of undeveloped land stretching from Fort Snelling State Park to Belle Plaine.

The Bloomington Visitor Center is about a mile from the Mall of America, a short trip from Minneapolis depending on highway conditions. That makes it a popular destination for school field trips.

The problem, Trapp said, was kids stopped out once with their class and never came back. They didn’t learn how to behave in the outdoors and didn’t develop any lasting connection with the natural world.

"Educationally, we weren’t accomplishing much with these kids," she said.

Still, a return trip wasn’t an easy sell with teachers. One factor was cost.

"Schools might be able to afford one field trip out here," Trapp said, "but three — that’s a lot to ask."

To ease the strain on school budgets, several groups that support the refuge financially agreed to cover the cost of bus trips for the school partner program.

In a time when teachers are under greater pressure to raise student test scores, refuge staff had to make the trip worth teachers’ time, as well. Trapp met with teachers prior to the start of the school year to design lesson plans that met state standards for
learning.

The lessons include science concepts students may encounter on the state’s new standardized science test. The test will be administered for the first time this year to students in the 5th and 8th grades, as well as one level of high school students.

The final hurdle to overcome was teachers’ reluctance to teach outdoors.

Trapp said some teachers fear they won’t be able to control a class outdoors. Others lack the knowledge to satisfy students’ curiosity, such as the ability to identify native plants and animals.

Refuge staff will work closely with teachers to improve their skills in both areas.

"Ultimately, our goal is to teach teachers to use [the refuge]," Trapp said.

Windom is one of three urban schools pioneering the school partner program this year.

When teachers can lead an outdoor lesson without the assistance of refuge staff, it will free up the resources to invite new schools into the partnership.

That’s the hope, at least.

"This is a model that will take five to six years to prove," Trapp acknowledged.

Looking to the future

Trapp said the school partner concept was discussed 10 years ago, but she couldn’t then build momentum behind the concept.

She said attitudes changed in the past decade, in part because of the book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder," by Richard Louv. Louv argues that increasing presence of technology in children’s lives, their jam-packed schedules, and safety concerns have the combined effect of limiting unstructured, outdoor play and exploration.

McDonald added to that argument. He said adults who never developed a "personal connection" with nature as children are less inclined to protect it.

"The future is with these kids," McDonald said. "It’s almost a cliché, but when you look at what’s going on with global climate change, loss of habitat … [and] species extinction, you realize if we’re ever going to turn the corner here it’s because of these
children."

Tim Leach, a 4th-grade teacher at Windom, said he polled his students before their trip to the refuge in November. Only four or five in Leach’s class had ever been camping before.

"Being an inner-city school, kids don’t have an opportunity to see nature," he said.

Leach said his students came back with from the refuge excited and energized by the experience. Several had pockets bulging with leaves and twigs gathered for the classroom’s science table.

Leach said one measure of the school partner program’s success would be their performance in the classroom. But their love of the outdoors, their desire to protect the environment — those are harder to measure, he said.

"I don’t know if we’ll ever find out that part," he said.

McDonald said just getting kids into the woods was an important first step.

"I think what Windom is doing here is really a model for what we need to do across the city, across the state, across the country," he said.