Over the course of the past year and a half, students, teachers, and schools have dealt with unprecedented circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic; school closures, loss of school-based relationships, economic crisis, and the persistence of systemic racial inequities. Realizing the need to reconnect students to their studies in an engaging way, Great MN Schools, a non-profit organization that supports high-performing, underserved schools across the Twin Cities, sought to provide a summer program opportunity to safely get students outside, connect them with peers and loving adults, and allow youth to relax and have fun. They searched for a partner that specialized in outdoor education and recreation, and that had the staffing capabilities to give their school staff a break to recharge for the upcoming school year. As a result, they reached out to us at Wilderness Inquiry and that was the beginning of our successful partnership.
Wilderness Inquiry developed a six-week outdoor learning program that centered on developing deeper relationships with peers, staff, and nature through science, math, art, social studies, literacy, and outdoor recreation skills. Overwhelming research shows that taking classroom learning outdoors and learning from the immediate surroundings increases a student’s ability to focus, learn academic content, develop social skills, and increases their desire to be engaged in learning. It also has mental health benefits, such as decreasing the impacts of anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorder.
Students build stronger learning connections through hands-on activities, which is why this program was designed to be activity based. From shelter building and orienteering skills to water quality testing and solar oven building, students connected classroom learning to applicable skills in real-time.
Science – students built solar ovens with common household items and used them to make s’mores. Through this activity, students learned how human-designed environments impact local temperatures. They measured the temperature between human-made and natural surfaces, and made the connection for where to place their solar ovens for optimal cooking. Students also performed water quality testing in local waterways and learned about macro invertebrate species.
We spent a day in the fourth week of programming learning about macroinvertebrates. We have a creek right next to the school, and we were able to find a bunch of crawfish there. Before this lesson, students didn’t think much about the creek. After the lesson, students asked to go down there every day for free time so they could search for more crawfish.”
Art – students made art with items found in nature, such as rocks, leaves, sticks, grass, and flowers, culminating in a picture book about future possibilities for the environment and students’ community. Students also built bird feeders and learned to make music from items found in nature.
Math – students engaged in a predator-prey activity to understand food chains and calculate the impact of shifting populations on the ecosystem as a whole, and participated in a hands-on activity around food webs.
Outdoor Recreation – students built shelters, learned orienteering skills, went bird watching, and created an obstacle course that helped empower youth to work together to problem solve with their peers.
The classroom spent time observing grasshoppers, squirrels, ants, and birds. A student that did not like insects or nature at the beginning of the program told me that when he got home, he spent the evening observing grasshoppers and he loved it. I was so surprised but delighted that he was not only loving this, but extending the learning to his home.”
Literacy – students spent time each day journaling and making observations in nature. They participated in traditional oral storytelling, wrote poetry about nature, and played a game that simulated the need for a wildlife corridor for butterflies to survive their migration. Students imagined and created a plan for improving butterfly habitat.
Not only were students engaging in a variety of education topics, they also built confidence when they were in leadership roles and were given the power to lead their own learning. Studies have shown that youth develop a relationship with nature when they have repeated, safe, and fun experiences outside. This learning also extends to their home life and community life. Students build deeper relationships and interpersonal skills when they have to work with a team to accomplish a task like building a shelter or creating a scavenger hunt with a partner. The activities also focused on their immediate environment and place, which helps make learning more concrete and meaningful.
Ultimately, the true success of this partnership and program was that it helped provide consistency, routine, and meaningful connections for students grappling with the unprecedented set of circumstances of 2020 and beyond. It takes a community to support the health and wellbeing of youth, and we are honored to partner with Great MN Schools and many other organizations in the Twin Cities and beyond to ensure that all youth have access to and can benefit from the incredible power of the outdoors.
This program was made possible thanks to Great MN Schools, Nature Valley, and the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.