Ten years ago, West Side Christian Middle School science teacher, Brian Dyk, suddenly passed away before his vision of using the school’s five-acre natural area as a learning environment was realized. The Brian Dyk Nature Preserve struggled with potential habitat and biodiversity loss due to encroaching invasive Buckthorn. Then a community-wide invasive species removal project reignited the vision of that space.
Over the past four years, West Side Christian School and Blandford Nature Center have been working in collaboration with teachers and students. Their nearby natural area is now being used as Brian Dyk had envisioned – as a tool to engage students in meaningful, hands-on, nature-based learning.
4 Milestones during the past 4 years
1. Students Work to Restore Native Plants
Each year the West Side Christian School second grade students learn about native seeds and plants during their field trips to Blandford Nature Center. Using this newfound knowledge, they return to school with the goal of improving biodiversity in their school’s on-site nature preserve.
The resulting day of planting is an amazing opportunity for learning outside! Through the partnership with Blandford Nature Center and a grant from the Wild Ones Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education, West Side Christian School – Official Site students added native plants for butterflies, birds, turtles, and more to their school’s nature preserve. Adult volunteers from Blandford Nature Center and Westend Church, as well as landscaper Dirk Dewitt, joined with the second grade botanists as they planted the native species. The students and volunteers were divided into plant teams. Together they read about each of the plants – finding out about the growing conditions, the planting needs, ways the seeds disperse and what native animals/ insects depend on the plants. Having the adults paired with the students helped the planting to run smoothly and ensured the young botanists were getting the most out of the experience.
This generation is growing to know the value of our native plants in the landscape.
2. The Outdoor Classroom is Now Used Daily
West Side Christian School’s new nature-based preschool utilizes the outdoor spaces located at both West Side Christian School and Blandford Nature Center. In fact, students now spend 25-50% of their time in daily outdoor play. When indoors, nature-based discovery will forms the backbone of the curriculum and drives classroom activities.
Such outdoor learning experiences meet early childhood learning standards while simultaneously meeting children’s need to connect to the natural world. The preschool’s model was influenced by research that demonstrates just how powerful nature can be in shaping a child’s development.
3. Map-making Leads to Continued Invasive Species Education
Now each year during the second grade map making social studies time, the classrooms are empty; the students are not in their places with bright, shiny faces. Where are they? They are on their way to their “sit spots” by a nearby vernal swamp.This is the place where the second grade students learn and demonstrate their understanding of some important map skills (how to read a map, how to determine your position relative to the map, how to follow directions to arrive at a location) and map vocabulary (compass rose, cardinal directions, map key and symbols).
Related: Mapping Invasive Species
After the maps were made they were eager to start to remove the invasive plants.Last year the students worked in collaboration with Blandford Nature Center to contribute their volunteer hours to the Stewardship Network October Volunteer Challenge. The students’ efforts counted towards reaching the Stewardship Network’s goal of 1,000 hours.
4. Ongoing Land Management
Yearly middle school students engage in active land management projects during their exploratory times – opportunities for them to explore and experience classes beyond their “normal” schedule. One option students choose is to venture out to continue to seek out and remove non-native and invasive plants. These work days consist of Blandford staff and volunteers and middle school students working alongside each other to improve the landscape by removing invasive plants, mulching the trails, and maintaining outdoor classroom spaces.
What started as a dream of one science teacher has now grown into a collaborative learning space with active management of the land. Through the ongoing collaboration between Blandford Nature Center and West Side Christian, students have opportunities to make real-life connections to their content learning all while making needed improvements to the land.
There are more opportunities to dream in our community. Let’s look at any grassy wasteland as a gold mine of potential for making real-life connections to students’ content learning. Yet, for one person the work needed to launch a project of this magnitude could seem overwhelming. Collaboration is the key.
Contact Janet Staal (firstname.lastname@example.org), Blandford Nature Center Environmental Consultant, to see how Blandford Nature Center unlocks the powerful learning experiences that exist just beyond the classroom door.