Your Dream Classroom

Think back to your childhood “school days.” What if you could have visited an “outdoor classroom” with a grove of trees, tallgrass prairie, a pond, and a wetland? Would you have enjoyed learning about the flora and fauna, analyzing the water, enjoying fresh air, and perhaps even helping care for this special place?

I’ll bet the answer is “yes,” it would have been a real treat. Well, I visited the dream classroom you never had! It’s the CAM Outdoor Classroom near Massena in Cass County.

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Wetland, farm fields beyond, and wind turbine in the distance.

According to Micah at the Cass County Conservation Board, the CAM school district “Man and His Environment” class conducts water testing, bird counts, plant inventories, and  also assists in care of the area. Formerly a working farm, 80 acres were gradually planted to native species, water control structures installed, and the property donated to the school district. It proved to be a bit too much to maintain, and so the County Conservation Board assumed possession and now it is open to the public. Aside from hunting, most uses are allowed.

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BBQ grill, Adirondack chairs…my kind of classroom furnishings!

A rustic classroom building with big patio doors, looks down the hill to the water features. The wetland is perhaps 2.3 acres (0.95 hectares) and is just downslope of a similar-sized pond. The shoreline is irregular (several jetties and an island). Water levels are controlled by adding or removing vertical slats (stop logs) at the in-line control structure. Stacking more slats raises water surface, and removing them lowers the depth. Such manipulations are useful both to encourage proper ecological functions (drawdown to encourage plant germination, flooding during waterfowl migration) and for utilitarian reasons such as draining the wetland during maintenance.

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Oops—I think a mower might have whacked this? Well, it provides a “cut-away view” I suppose.

What do students learn by visiting a place like this? What educational activity occurs that can be done better here, than in a traditional classroom? Sure a visit must be fun, but does it provide real academic benefits? As both a parent and an educator, I believe those are important questions. Below I list educational benefits of outdoor education, based on my observations as a naturalist, teacher, Scout leader, and in outings with my own kids.

Children crave connections. They learn better when they connect with their teacher. They read better when they connect with an author. They play better when they connect with other children. And…they are more curious, enthusiastic, and dedicated when they connect to nature. A wise teacher recognizes a teachable moment in this, and can work wonders in the great outdoors.

Students recognize authenticity. “Real-life” stories, or stories that at least relate to familiar life experiences, are valued and memorable. Being in Nature is as real as it gets! Wise teachers encourage original observations, hands-on work that will have a real effect on the world, and helping students ponder how the activities relate to their own lives.

We all need a change-of-pace! A different setting, combined with a novel set of  activities, encourages engagement with the lessons. There’s no desk to slouch into. Students who are normally quiet are more likely to speak up. Unfamiliar surroundings make us pay attention. A wise teacher uses this to advantage, focusing students and digging a bit deeper (sometimes, literally!).

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This “painted” duck is rather faded. And quite tame!

Can we use outdoor activity to foster creativity with language? Collect scientific observations and use math to analyze data? Train the “artist’s eye” with a new point of view? Well-equipped teachers do amazing things outdoors (including at your local wetland).

Can you recall a lesson from Nature (whether organized schooling or not)? I would love to hear your input in the comments! Thanks for visiting this “wetland classroom.”

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Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

6 thoughts on “Your Dream Classroom”

  1. Growing up in (what was then) a small town in central Florida, my two brothers and I were incredibly lucky to have woods and wetlands just on the other side of our family’s back yard. “You want to go exploring?” was a familiar phrase. We became interested in all the creatures (including water bugs), and the experiences there engendered a lifelong curiosity in all three of us to know the names of things (plants, birds, bugs) and to know the why of things, as well. Your first paragraph plunged me right back into that wonderful time of life. That early exposure to the rich life of woods and wetlands has stayed with us and enriched our lives beyond measure. Where I am lucky to live now is in the panhandle area of Florida, near Pensacola, in a Longleaf pine forest. It has uplands, wetlands, wiregrass, a multitude of wildflowers and native plants, plus a beautiful natural year-’round bubbling spring. Wildlife ranges from whitetail deer and turkeys to gopher tortoises, coyotes, foxes, raccoons and many types of hawks, owls and other birds. I’m not sure I would love this “splendid isolation” so much if not for that early childhood exposure, and learning to love exploring in nature. I wish more kids of all ages could experience the natural world in places like the CAM Outdoor Classroom.

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    1. Wow…thanks for the reflection. You have a way with words—you should blog 😉
      Seriously, though…budgets in Iowa schools have largely eliminated trips to places like this outdoor classroom. Standardized (regimented??) curricula don’t leave much room for outdoor exploring, either. I hope we come to see the value in both formal and informal outdoor learning.

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      1. Thanks for the kind words, Paul. Yes, I hope we do, too. Kids have no framework for making a connection with the natural world unless they get out in it. Funding and political will are always issues, and I think the reluctance of many folks to allow their kids to be where they might get bitten by a bug isn’t helping matters. I remember a few years ago when our grandkids were little. I persuaded one of them, about six, to walk with me. At one point in the walk, eyes big, she stopped and pointed at something on the ground. “Look! A pine cone! In nature!” Yes, Julia, it wasn’t created by Disney World. How about that? We still chuckle about the incident, but as a young adult now, she feels safer and more entertained in the local shopping mall (ugh!) than in our remarkable woods.

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  2. One of my favorite teachers was the wonderful fifth-grade teacher who allowed me to wander alone, during recess, in the springtime, into the little grove of trees and shrubs right behind the playground area where the other kids were running around. I grew up in an old suburb of Detroit that was very developed even back in the early Sixties. But that little grove, though it occupied less than a quarter acre, was magic. I saw so many birds for the first time there, including indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, chestnut-sided warbler, redstart, catbird, and ruby-throated hummingbird. My first rose-breasted grosbeak, with its rose patch vivid in the sunshine, astounded me.

    My bargain with the teacher was that I would not get so enchanted by the birds that I missed seeing the end of recess. But a few times I looked out to see the playground was empty, and I had to go flying back late to the school. But the teacher didn’t get angry, and she listened to me chattering about all the birds I had seen. I am so grateful to her. She deserves partial credit for all the conservation work I’ve ever done.

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