May Program Recap

| Blog, Program Recap

By Linda Shuster, WORC Member

Cultivating our Schoolyards as Habitat to Grow Scholars Who Will Become Stewards
Presented via Zoom May 17 by Sally Triant, Grow Wise Learning

Sally began by noting that children need nature; however, children today are spending less time in nature than previous generations. The Children and Nature Network reports that today’s children spend up to 44 hours per week in front of a screen and sometimes fewer than 10 minutes per day playing outside. Moreover, they note that children’s race, socioeconomic status, ability, and postal code all influence their access to nature. Sally recommended two books. One further illustrates these nature ‘deficits’ that children are experiencing, and the second aims to bring back the nature-related vocabulary words that children are losing due to lack of exposure. Sally concluded this section of her presentation by describing her goal—to find additional methods for connecting children with nature, so that they can become stewards of the natural world.

Children spend 40–50 hours per week in schoolyards, which make them great places in which to educate children about their natural environments. Sally presented the concept of place-based education. Place-based education is the practice of using the environment and local community to teach concepts across the curriculum. There are a variety of benefits to place-based education, including increased academic achievement and engendering closer ties to the local community. The goal of Sally’s consulting firm, Grow Wise Learning, LLC, is to encourage educators to adopt place-based education.

Sally described the Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, an organization of nine regional hubs across Michigan. Their mission is to support educators “to develop knowledgeable and active stewards of the Great Lakes and their ecosystems through place-based studies and explorations in local communities.” The Grand Rapids regional hub is Groundswell, which is based at Grand Valley State University (GVSU). Groundswell has organized a group of community partners into a coalition called the Grand Rapids Environmental Education Network (GREEN), and Sally has worked alongside these partners.

Sally next addressed the barriers that prevent educators from using their schoolyards as classrooms. This is a topic she explored in her Master’s thesis research. One barrier is that the No Child Left Behind mandate has resulted in a standardized national curriculum that leaves little room for incorporating locally-based learning. Sally’s thesis work included developing a guidebook for implementing place-based education. The guidebook describes seven core concepts aimed at aligning learning with place. She discussed four of the seven concepts.

The first core concept is encouraging students’ sense of place. The second concept is reviving nature study and phenology. Phenology is the science of recording natural, regularly occurring events. In her guidebook, Sally provides a template for a personal phenology page that teachers can use to practice phenology with their students. The third core concept is local mapmaking. This helps children to understand that the important things are not far away, but exist right there in their environments. The fourth and final core concept is water fluency. Water fluency can be incorporated into a variety of academic areas, including language arts, science, and mathematics.

Sally described another barrier to place-based education, which is that teacher training does not emphasize taking students outdoors. However, even if teachers are interested in taking their students outdoors, a major barrier is the lack of an appropriate space in the schoolyard for this education to take place. Sally undertook the job of inventorying all 43 of the Grand Rapids Public Schools’ schoolyards and created a Schoolyard Features Inventory. She considered a number of attributes, including whether there was an existing garden, access to water, and space available to gather a class. She looked for no-mow areas that could become native gardens. Sally noted that the Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN), which supports municipal leaders and their community partners to connect children to the benefits of nature, has resulted in improved outdoor spaces at three GRPS schools and thus increased the number of lessons taking place outdoors at those schools.

In summary, Sally’s presentation was educational, exciting, and inspiring. One question from the audience related to what people can do to support the place-based education movement in Grand Rapids. Sally responded that some schools have gardens that have been abandoned and those schools begin to feel they are messy and a problem. She encouraged people to contact one of these schools and ask how they can help to rescue the garden. Finally, Sally created a document which provides a summary of some of the key concepts she discussed, as well as details regarding the sources she cited. You can find a link to the document here. Watch the video on YouTube.