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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.”