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Go Outside & Play!

Environmental education programs introduce youths to the natural world

Midland resident Danielle King looks forward to hearing about what her two sons learned while at preschool.

They may tell her about lessons involving writing their names—in mud, using sticks as writing utensils—or they may come home literally drenched in mud, exclaiming, “We had the best day at school! We went to the pond and learned about frogs!”

A sign next to King’s washing machine reads: Our best days usually end with the dirtiest clothes.

“They (King’s sons) are learning so much, in a different context,” she says.

King’s sons attend Nature Preschool at Chippewa Nature Center, an environmental education program in Midland where hands-on, nature-based learning (and sometimes getting downright muddy) is the curriculum.

Environmental education programs, using nature as the central organizing concept, aim to lay a foundation for children to connect with and actively participate in the natural world around them. The goal of the programs is to teach children how to learn about and investigate their environment, and also how to make intelligent, informed decisions about taking care of it.

According to the Michigan No Child Left Inside Coalition, children today spend an average of 6.5 hours a day with electronic media, but less than 30 minutes a week in unstructured outdoor play. Yet, studies show that children who regularly play outside are more creative, have improved attention spans and test scores, and show fewer signs of obesity than children who do not regularly play outside. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity rates have more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.

Could environmental education programs be the “breath of fresh air” today’s children need? Read on to discover what types of environmental education programs are available to youths in the Great Lakes Bay Region.

Family fishing

Voyage into Knowledge

Mission: To foster environmental stewardship of the Saginaw Bay Watershed and the Great Lakes ecosystem, and to provide personal development opportunities for learners of all ages through shipboard and land-based educational experiences.

Students in the Benthic Brigade, Plankton Privates, or Water Wardens, different groups in BaySail’s environmental education programs, spend their days collecting and testing water samples, examining plankton under microscopes, navigating nautical courses, and possibly even steering their classroom—that is, the awe-inspiring tall ship Appledore IV.

Shirley Roberts, executive director of Bay City-based BaySail, says BaySail programs promote environmental stewardship through education. Each program includes an environmental science component aimed at increasing the proficiency of participants in subjects related to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

“We often assume that because we live by all of this water and have access to it, we understand it,” says Roberts. “The reality is not so. Many students have never been on a boat before stepping aboard this big, beautiful ship. They experience this freshwater resource in new, exciting, and unforgettable ways.”

BaySail’s environmental education programs include Science Under Sail, History Under Sail, and Ecosail. Designed for students in grades K – 12, each program offers age-appropriate educational opportunities. History Under Sail takes students back in time, focusing on Michigan’s natural resources and early settlers’ roles, and Ecosail combines scientific exploration of water quality with seamanship, navigation, and survival at sea activities.

However, Science Under Sail is BaySail’s flagship program. Science Under Sail, launched in 1998, was awarded “Sea Education Program of the Year” in 2002 by Tall Ships of America. The program also provides grade-level materials aligned with Michigan Science Grade Level Content Expectations.

Science Under Sail students are encouraged to participate in shipboard activities aimed at promoting higher-level thinking, from identifying birds and waterfowl to identifying point source and nonpoint source pollution. Each student is given a take-home educational journal to promote extended learning and to help students remember their Science Under Sail experience.

“We’ve had the opportunity to touch a lot of lives and educate a lot of people,” says Roberts. “Students step aboard this beautiful ship and learn to connect to the resource.”

How to Enroll: Call 989-895-5193, or visit www.baysailbaycity.org

Cost: Science Under Sail is $850 for up to 35 people; scholarships are often available.

When it’s offered: Spring, April – June; fall, September – October

Who can participate: Students in grades K – 12

Fun Fact: Since Science Under Sail began in 1998, BaySail has welcomed about 40,000 Michigan students aboard the Appledore IV.

Child with a frog

Nature’s Classroom

Mission: To provide a premier early childhood environment that meets the developmental needs of the whole child, while initiating him or her into a lifelong, meaningful relationship with the natural world.

Whether in snow pants and boots or raincoats and galoshes, 3- and 4-year-old students at Chippewa Nature Center’s Nature Preschool in Midland venture out on a daily one-hour hike (in any weather element except lightning). A winter hike may very well include sledding, which could easily prompt a student to inquire how animals travel in the winter. Right there in the woods, a lesson about animal behavior and winter survival tactics may transpire.

Rachel Larimore, director of education at Chippewa Nature Center, says Nature Preschool is the perfect combination of early childhood education and environmental education, teaching youths both academic and socioemotional skills using nature as its tool.

“[Through] splashing in ponds [and] playing with frogs, a child may learn how fast they need to move to catch a frog, [and] maybe ask questions about the spots on the frog,” Larimore says. “It’s building and nurturing that sense of wonder, inquiry skills that will later play out in academics.”

The Nature Preschool opened in 2007, and a permanent home was built for the program in 2009: The Margaret Ann (Ranny) Riecker Nature Preschool Center, a two-classroom, LEED™ Gold Certified building. Each year, 88 students are greeted by the large, stuffed black bear that marks the entrance to the preschool. Creative and cooperative play is encouraged through an indoor tree fort and a sand and water play area. Animal hides and skulls adorn the walls of the natural environment.

On any given day at Nature Preschool, students will be encouraged to climb trees and build forts. They will participate in a daily hike through the forest, meadows, and trails, possibly visiting the animals at the Homestead Farm, tending to the herb garden at the Log Schoolhouse, or splashing around in the Arbury Pond along the way. 

“We use daily outdoor experiences with nature to connect kids with the world around them,” Larimore says, “and to help them see themselves as active participants in it.”

How to Enroll: Pick up a registration packet at Chippewa Nature Center, or visit www.chippewanaturecenter.org

Cost: Varies based on two-, three-, or four-day-a-week options. The goal is to have no family pay more than 5 percent of their gross income toward tuition; scholarships are available.

When it’s offered: September – May

Who can participate: 3- and 4-year-old children

Fun Fact: Rachel Larimore wrote Establishing a Nature-based Preschool as a guide for other organizations interested in starting a similar program. Bullock Creek Schools, for example, recently started a nature-based kindergarten program.    

Child looking through microscope
Stay Awhile in the Wild

Mission: To educate, lead, and serve youths through a positive learning environment, providing hands-on experience in a natural setting.

Spending three days and two nights at Hartley Outdoor Education Center is somewhat of a local rite of passage. As Eric Rutherford, director of Hartley, says, “If you grew up around here, you’ve more than likely gone to Hartley. It’s really this kind of iconic part of the fabric that makes up Saginaw County.”

Owned and operated by the Saginaw Intermediate School District, Hartley’s residential program (including the overnight stay) is generally for fourth through sixth grade students, though customized programs and visiting lengths are available for students of all ages. For example, a one-day program is available for preschoolers, and includes time spent at Hartley’s living, working Murphy Farm.

Hartley operates in alignment with state and district guidelines for schools, and education is core curriculum-based with emphasis placed on three main categories: science, social and living history studies, and outdoor skills.

The program’s tagline is “Explore. Engage. Educate.” Rutherford says, “Kids explore in nature here, and that’s where we get the engagement. Kids are seeing, touching, and experiencing nature. We make it come to life, which is difficult to do in a cinderblock environment.”

During their stay at Hartley, students are exposed to four three-hour classes, chosen by the school before their arrival. Class options are vast, including wetland, where students take samples from ponds and lakes and study them under microscopes; mammals, in which students hike to find animal tracks and habitats; and pioneers, with students learning the skills and habits of early settlers.

Youths may discover actual animal habitats for the first time when exploring Hartley’s 300 acres of woods, lakes, and wetlands. They may cook over an open fire while learning about wilderness survival, or make candles like pioneers.

Through each class, and their stay at Hartley as a whole, students move from having a general awareness of environmental concepts to making memorable connections with the outdoors.

“Many kids who come to Hartley aren’t often exposed to the outdoors,” says Rutherford. “Non-traditional students step up to challenges, [and] kids discover themselves. Education far beyond the walls of the classroom takes place here.”

How to Enroll: Call 989-865-6295, or visit www.sisd/hartley

Cost: $100 – $120 per student, based on in-district or out-of-district location.

When it’s offered: September – June

Who can participate: Students in grades 4 – 6

Fun Fact: Since 1975, over 150,000 students have participated in the residential program at Hartley Outdoor Education Center.

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