AWF Outdoor Classrooms
Students Learn by Engaging with Nature
It may be more difficult than ever to hold a child’s attention these days. But what if there’s a tadpole to touch? Or a determined box turtle inching his way along? Or a hummingbird whirring just beyond the classroom window?
Game on. Electronics off. Nature wins.
That’s how it is at the Alabama Wildlife Federation, whose programs go from ho-hum to hooray in a blink. That engagement means education. Like that time Winston County Principal Jennifer Barker faced the delightful dilemma of getting her Lynn Elementary students into the lunchroom.
“They’d rather sit and look at the turtles in our turtle habitat or watch the butterflies in our butterfly habitat,” she says of the Outdoor Classroom learning stations, an AWF program brought to life at Lynn and nearly 400 other schools around Alabama. “Then there was the time something had burrowed into our raised vegetable garden, which made the kids so curious about what was going on. Was it a rabbit, maybe a dog? They are thinking!”
This better-than-textbooks approach has the school buzzing. “A fourth-grade student led me out to show me a chrysalis,” Barker says. “Her teacher was able to explain the whole butterfly life cycle based on that finding. Our students are also conducting research in our box turtle habitat. They’re photographing turtles, measuring their shells, taking soil samples and temperature readings, then entering it all onto a website. These student researchers are third graders.”
At Brookwood Forest Elementary in Birmingham, science teacher John Woodard’s students consult with outside experts before making decisions about installing Outdoor Classroom stations. “They met with a landscape designer while planning our songbird habitat,” Woodard says. “They then designed the space and built it with native plants, so they had to research what plants attract both songbirds and pollinators.”
Likewise, the Brookwood Forest students met with “Mrs. April” Waltz, who heads the Alabama Outdoor Classroom program at AWF, to learn how to create a turtle habitat. “This empowered the students. Rather than our building things for them, they make the decisions, so it’s really a leadership program too. The Eastern box turtle habitat is actually the sixth graders’ legacy project, something that will continue after they leave.”
Brookwood Forest’s Outdoor Classroom cross-pollinates across school classes. An art teacher harvests gourds for students to paint and sculpt; special-needs students can access raised beds and touch-feel-taste plantings in the Sensory Garden; the school’s “iClub” cooking group includes Outdoor Classroom garden products in recipes. Eagle Scouts improve the grounds with their projects, many along the school’s Nature Trail, complete with interpretative signs.
The Alabama Power Foundation support enables the Alabama Outdoor Classroom program and the impressive experiential activities at the Alabama Nature Center in Millbrook in Elmore County, near Montgomery. “This year, we’ve had roughly 50,000 people – school groups, parents, teachers, and other individuals – come to the Nature Center,” says Executive Director Tim Gothard of the sprawling property with 5 miles of boardwalk and nature trails and the NaturePlex’s series of exhibits and classrooms.
It’s just plain cool, especially to wide-eyed kids whose only brush with nature may have come from a TV screen. Suddenly, they’re running their fingers over a nonpoisonous rat snake or carefully studying a coyote skull, just a few of the 70 educational animals on hand. Teachers choose from a wonderland of field trips onto the grounds, where tadpole touching and creek wading happily come into play. The possibilities are many – perhaps an apiary demonstration, dissecting an owl pellet, hiking for edibles, or looking for decomposers on the trail.
The most popular choices are the aquatic roundup/creek hike and the nature hike. “Our naturalists are great about finding whatever’s there – a pileated woodpecker or a honeybee hive to explore,” Gothard says. “Kids get excited about discovering frogs, crawfish and tadpoles, or turning over a rotten log to find amazing insects swarming on the other side.”
As “don’t touch” turns to “do touch,” that attention span, that little 5-minute window, stretches as heads fill with facts they won’t forget. Gothard likes what he sees in the NaturePlex and across the grounds. And in the Outdoor Classrooms around Alabama.
“No question I’m biased,” he says. “But I can tell you this is the strongest outdoor classroom program you’ll find anywhere.” He cites the rich and useable lesson plans that live on the AWF website, the materials that expand the Alabama Course of Study requirements, and the positive reaction from teachers and students. The two building phases of the Alabama Nature Center – headquarters building and grounds, then NaturePlex – opened in 2007 and 2015, respectively.
Much of the success stems from Alabama Power Foundation support. “An early seed grant made development of the Alabama Outdoor Classroom program possible,” Gothard says. “From the beginning and through several phases of development of the Alabama Nature Center, the Foundation has been with us the entire way. Now their support helps us grow the programs and the reach of the Alabama Nature Center.”
The educators express gratitude. “We have Mrs. April from the Wildlife Federation on speed dial. We can ask any question and get the help we need,” Baker says. “I can see this whole thing trending to promote career paths for our students in science, math and engineering,” Woodard adds. “The teacher development workshops are wonderful, and the whole Outdoor Classroom program is great for the teachers to keep thinking and dreaming.”
Gothard looks to the future. “These students will become the next stewards of the land, armed with their experiences in our programs. And as leaders of tomorrow they will make the informed decisions on how we balance use, management and protection of the outdoors.”
Indeed, many students will base those decisions on the outdoors they have come to know and understand, thanks to the Alabama Wildlife Federation and the Alabama Power Foundation.