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When Nature is Your Classroom

What happens when a school’s outdoor environment is creatively integrated into its  curriculum? Magic. We’re happy to share the stories of three schools that have done just that.

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Restoration Project Becomes High School Lab

It’s a crisp, autumn, school-day afternoon, and more than 200 teenagers are enjoying some time outside the doors of Hudson High School. Gathered in small clusters, they talk, laugh…and occasionally grunt. But it’s not what you think.

Today, rather than cell phones and tablets, these kids grip shovels and shrubs. Today, instead of gossip, they exchange opinions about the placement of plants. Today, these students are not just on the grounds of Hudson High; they are in the school’s ‘Land Lab,’ a six-acre expanse of Hudson City School District property that includes a small tributary of Tinker’s Creek. Today, rather than learning about environmental science in a lab or from a textbook, these students are doing it. They’re getting wet; they’re getting muddy; and as they plant more than 2,000 native trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, they’re getting a real, live understanding of what it takes to restore and regenerate a healthy stream system.

“This is what we call authentic learning,” said Hudson High School ecology teacher Chris Thaxton. “It’s hands on education.”

For Thaxton and fellow teacher, Matt Kearns, the Land Lab and the restoration of the degraded tributary is the realization of a dream. Thaxton and Kearns first envisioned an outdoor learning space in 2000, after they visited a school near Columbus, Ohio, where teachers were integrating ecological restoration on school property into their k-12 environmental education. The stream on Hudson’s campus was in dire need of restoration. It had become channelized, incised, and disconnected from its floodplain in response to years of suburban development and agriculture in the region. Thaxton and Kearns knew that the restoration of the stream would be an invaluable environmental educational tool for Hudson High students.

“Rarely are students able to learn something in a real-world context,” said Kearns. “No matter how hard teachers try to make things real-world applicable in the classroom, there is no substitute for an actual project involving a real piece of land.”

With funding from the Ohio EPA, the City of Hudson, and the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, and with strong support from the Tinkers Creek Watershed Partners, the Cuyahoga River RAP, the Summit Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Hudson community, the Land Lab has come to life in the form of a full-scale ecological restoration project. Intended to dissipate stream energy, minimize erosion and downstream sedimentation, increase floodplain storage capacity, protect infrastructure, and improve water quality and habitat, the restoration is providing Hudson High School students with a unique, hands-on, education experience.

Being outside in nature for a class is a welcome experience for the students. Just ask Hudson High senior, Annie Scott. “It’s great to spend time in the Land Lab,” she said, while planting. “Getting down in the stream is really fun!”

The decision to include students in every stage of the restoration of nearly 2,000 feet of stream and adjoining meadow, shrub, forested and wetland areas was an easy one for Thaxton and Kearns. “We wanted them totally invested,” said Thaxton. “Students had to research the history of the watershed and property. They had to do measurements of the stream velocity, width, length and then research how to restore a stream. Their final project was a presentation on the process of stream restoration and design.”

“There are textbooks and lab manuals that have simulations of these activities,” said Kearns, “but our students did them with realistic equipment alongside the professionals themselves. ”

One of those professionals was Biohabitats landscape ecologist Kevin Grieser. Working on the Land Lab was particularly meaningful for Grieser, whose wife graduated from Hudson High and whose in-laws came out to help with the planting. Grieser had worked on restoration projects with students before, but his Hudson High experience was unique in that the students were actually involved in the design. “Knowing that hundreds and hundreds of students are going to learn about ecology from something we designed and built is extremely rewarding,” said Grieser.

With construction and planting complete, the restored stream system is now stable and connected to its floodplain. It provides six different habitats and much greater storage capacity for stormwater. It also has a new generation of stewards.

“By helping with the restoration planting we realize that we are part of something bigger than ourselves,” said senior Elizabeth Reichart, who plans to study international business but hopes to weave environmental studies into her major and career. “We are excited to come back in the future to see how the site changes.”

If project goals are met, those changes will include decreased erosion and sedimentation, improved stormwater management, enhanced habitat and water quality, and a continually evolving and improving Land Lab.

“Years ago, when Matt and I first began taking kids out, I was so scared they would get in trouble or hurt,” said Thaxton. “Now we have a totally different attitude: get out, do your work and be respectful. They love it!”

The Land Lab has already generated a ripple effect. A few former students have gone on to study or work in environmental careers; siblings of former students eagerly take the course; and two elementary schools in the district, inspired by Hudson High, now have areas set aside outside for the purpose of studying the natural world.

And let’s not forget the parents. Both teachers say they receive a great deal of positive feedback from parents regarding their kids’ experience in the Land Lab. “Many parents tell me that their children previously avoided the outdoors, but now they actively participate in a field-based class and love it,” said Kearns.

But Kearns’ favorite comment related to the Land Lab is one he hears often from students. It’s a statement that is not uncommon among teenagers: “I can’t believe I just did that!” In the case of Hudson students, however, it’s usually in response to picking up a worm or praying mantis.

Live Streaming at the Miquon School

By Chris Streb

It is strange that in a span of two decades, the idea and importance of children in nature requires special recognition.  Like the vanishing languages of indigenous people, it is possible that for the first time since the beginning of humanity, the primal continuance and connection of kids exploring their world could soon be lost.  If our children do not have the experiences and memories of building mud slides and smelling autumn from beneath a pile of leaves, or the peace of sitting on a perch in a tree as the wind blows while listening to songbirds, how will they grow to become the stewards of our planet? How will they teach their children the names of the plants and animals, let alone address the impacts of climate change?

These questions may elicit despair among those of us who view nature as our church or mother.  I felt this kind of despair after becoming a father a few years back.  Living in the city, I wondered how my daughter was going to feel native to the natural world.  But just a few months into her life, I was inspired by a colleague and little school outside of Philadelphia.

It was 2010 when Stu Appel from the landscape architecture firm Wells Appel asked Biohabitats to help diagnose and develop a strategy for resolving flooding and stream channel erosion problems for an independent elementary school called the Miquon School.  Although I had read about Miquon and its position in the landscape, it did not lessen the surprise of going to the place itself. Upon arriving on the campus for the kickoff meeting, I was struck by the sense that this was not an ordinary school.

Snugly nestled in the forested Wissahickon valley, with rock outcrops and groundwater seeps, the campus seemed apart from the urban world just a few miles away. A stream runs right through Miquon’s campus and along old walls of its administrative building.  No fewer than three bridges cross the stream, with ad hoc, student built fords adding bonus features.  But what struck me most with that first impression were the kids.  As they jumped out of their parents’ cars and waved goodbye, I noticed that many of them were wearing rubber boots.  They weren’t running straight into the buildings to start class, but instead were going to the garden or the creek itself–as if nature is the Miquon School’s homeroom.  I was in love with the place, and admittedly, slightly jealous.

We spent the morning learning about the campus, the school and importantly, the changes that had occurred in the stream over the last decade.  The Miquon School is 80 years old this year.  It was not formed on the premise of using the environment to enhance learning; this idea grew organically over the years.  The Miquon School has, literally, grown from and become a part of its place.

Miquon alumni claim that their fondest memories of the school involved playing and learning in the stream.  Floods and erosion were now threatening that heritage.  Stream banks, once less than a foot high, had become four to six feet high in locations and higher than fifteen feet at the downstream end of campus.  For student safety, fences were installed, representing a barrier to the stream that had never been a part of the campus culture.

Our job was to diagnose the source of the storm flows and develop some ideas for mitigating it. The culprit was assumed to be development in the watershed. However, we found the issue to be more nefarious: extreme storms.  It seems that this particular location in the Philadelphia metro area has had an inordinate occurrence of storms exceeding 25-year to 200-year events in the last decade alone.

Is climate change, or urban heat island effect the explanation behind these more frequent, extreme storms?  We can take our guesses, but we know that for 60 years, students of the Miquon School were able to play safely in the stream.

While the proposed solution to the erosion problem can not diminish the frequency of extreme rain events in western Philadelphia, it can be an example of adaptation, resiliency and the power of a community to restore their ecosystem.  Although it may take some time to acquire land for storing runoff and funds to restore the stream, we can take solace knowing that Miquon maintains its mission to encourage wonder, inquiry, independence and discovery through its programs and place.  I have no doubt that 20 years from now, the school will still cultivate a native interest in nature, the kids will still arrive wearing boots, and who knows, perhaps some of today’s Miquon students will have taken it upon themselves to study and solve problems– like understanding the extreme weather that eroded away their stream.

Note: Stuart Appel took it upon himself to champion implementation of the plan we developed to divert, slow and capture runoff to help the Miquon School restore the stream, so that the students of Miquon can continue to play safely within its banks.  Sadly, Stu passed away in September 2012.  He was a gifted landscape architect with exceptional vision, a teacher and mentor to many, and a friend to many of us at Biohabitats. He will be missed.

Children help design Boulder’s Burke Park

Boulder, Colorado, a town nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, is known for its active, outdoor lifestyle. One might assume that kids who grow up with the majestic Flatirons as a daily backdrop are immune to nature-deficit disorder. According Jeff Dillon, Superintendent of Parks & Planning for the City of Boulder Parks and Recreation Department, that’s not necessarily the case.

“Boulder has great open space,” said Dillon, “but some of that is difficult to five or six-year olds to get to without their parents.”

Having spent four decades as a landscape architect, outdoor educator, and nature play expert before joining the Parks and Planning staff, Dillon understands what it takes to connect people to place. He has developed engaging nature areas in places like Denali National Park.

“It’s critical for children to have those early, positive outdoor experiences in their backyards, neighborhoods, and schools,” said Dillon.

Fortunately, thanks to Dillon, and a unique collaboration he orchestrated, an entire park full of such experiences is in the process of being created. It just so happens that Boulder’s six-acre Admiral Arleigh Burke Park, which features ball fields and the popular, two-acre Thunderbird Lake, abuts the grounds of Horizons Montessori K-8, a charter school that includes environmental responsibility among its guiding principles.  Though the City of Boulder and Horizons had a joint use agreement for the land they shared, there hadn’t been much collaboration in the past. But sometimes, the stars align.

Horizons had recently constructed a new wing, which took away a portion of their playground and sports field. The school was just beginning to consider the redesign of their outdoor space. The City was managing wetlands around the lake as part of the adaptive management of Thunderbird Lake. The City’s Department of Parks and Recreation was beginning to develop strategies to further improve Thunderbird Lake and create an outdoor learning area in the park.

Meanwhile, the City was building a relationship with the University of Colorado’s Growing Up Boulder program, a child-and-youth-friendly city initiative that strives to ensure youth opportunities to participate in planning and decision making.  “We had been working with Growing Up Boulder’s university students on a number of other projects,” said Dillon, “and Burke Park just seemed the perfect opportunity to partner.”

Thanks to what Dillon now describes as “a good series of happenstances,” the school renovation became a catalyst for collaboration. The City’s Parks and Recreation Department, Horizons K-8 School, Growing Up Boulder, and other partners including the Keep it Clean Partnership, Biohabitats, and the City’s Watershed Outreach Program, all came together to re-envision Burke Park.

Key to this collaborative effort, known as Explorations in Burke Park, is the involvement of students. Fortunately, the park project fit neatly into the framework of Horizons’ yearly, four-week service learning program called Make-A-Difference (MAD).

Led by Growing Up Boulder coordinator and University of Colorado senior instructor Tori Derr, environmental design students participating in Growing Up Boulder put together this year’s four-week MAD course for 4th-8th graders at Horizons. Through the MAD course, Horizons students studied, planned, modeled, and communicated about Burke Park.

The first week of the MAD course was spent exploring the site and learning its history, geology and hydrology. Led by two Italian student interns from the University, the kids from Horizons created photogrids of the site, documenting its features and noting its opportunities.

Biohabitats’ Claudia Browne led an eco-orientation class early on to talk about the different ways to “see” places, and the past stories that are behind what we see.

“Exploring the lake and wetlands with the kids was wonderful” said Browne. “As they discovered spiders, mice trails, coyote scat, wasps, and fish, their ‘windshield-view’ of the lake transformed into an understanding of the connections between water, plants and the food web.”

During the second week, with help from Growing Up Boulder, Biohabitats, Parks staff,  the Keep it Clean Partnership and the City’s Watershed Outreach Program, the students conducted a “bioblitz” of the site, identifying plants and wildlife and testing the water quality of Thunderbird Lake.

“To hear the kids go from calling something a ‘tree’ or ‘bush’ to easily using plant names like peach-leaf willow, cottonwoods, cattail, or bulrush,” said Browne, “was deeply satisfying.”

During the final weeks of the course, the students learned about the design process, participated in design charettes, built models of play and learning areas, and held a community workshop with more than 40 neighbors, including those from a senior community located across the street from the park. The students shared their findings and their suggestions for the park, and the workshop resulted in an exciting, multi-generational exchange of ideas.

“These kids had so much pent up energy from watching the construction of the new wing for about a year,” said Dillon. “They were anxious to see something happen, and they were very engaged and very enthusiastic, from 4th grade all the way through 8th grade.”

According to Derr, the kids’ energy was contagious and inspiring. “From my perspective, the greatest contribution the Horizons’ students gave to the project was their infectious enthusiasm for the park,” she said.  “ While some of their ideas may be wild or unconventional, their excitement for these ideas makes us all think and work a little harder to find ways to make them happen.”

The result of all of this youth-infused planning is a strategy to incorporate four key themes in the design of Burke Park: a playground area (the children call it their “river of sand and rock”) that emphasizes nature and adventure play; an outdoor learning area where visitors can study habitat around Thunderbird Lake; active living areas that promote exercise, health and wellness for all ages; and community gathering spaces, where neighbors can garden and picnic. In other words, the park will transform into a community hub that is as rich in biodiversity as it is in opportunities for people of all ages to seek connection, solace, fitness, fun, and adventure.

The possibilities created by this transformation are only beginning to be realized.  “Every year, the older kids spend a week off-site at a nature preserve,” said Dillon. “One of the realizations [for Horizons] is that they’ll be able to bring many of those features they’ve had to drive to right into their backyard.”

For both undergraduate and graduate students in the Growing Up Boulder program, the collaboration provides an opportunity to apply their design training and planning skills to a real project. In doing so, according to Derr, they not only bring their youthful perspective to the project, but they help bring out the ideas and participation of Horizons’ students. “They were an integral part of the planning process,” said Derr of her students, “and to cultivating and valuing youth voices in park planning.”

For Dillon, too, this effort has already yielded benefits. In addition to the smiles they have witnessed while collaborating on the future Admiral Arleigh Burke Park, Dillon’s staff now has stronger relationships with the school district and University, and greater skill in planning nature play areas and engaging communities in design.

“We are all aware of the nature deficit disorder that has been impacting the United States,” said Dillon. He plans to continue building his department’s understanding of this challenge, and as well as its skills to combat it in Boulder. As Dillon and his colleagues take this collaborative, community approach to planning out to other neighborhoods, we can only hope others follow.

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