How COVID-19 containment unlocked outdoor learning classes

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Sheryl Honig and Anna Foster already believed that people often learn better outside than inside a classroom or auditorium, but the past year and a half has made these educators at Ridges Sanctuary even more so. some.

“When you’re here, you’re learning in a real place, not a fictional place,” Honig said as he stood on a boardwalk and bridge over a shallow emerald pool surrounded by white cedars. “It’s so rich.”

Coronavirus restrictions forced the two Ridges employees to rethink the way they taught students and entertained and guided visitors to the shrine, 8166 Hwy 57 in Baileys Harbor.

Honig, who was “retired” and holds several advanced degrees in early childhood education, is an environmental educator for The Ridges, her Dragonfly Nature preschool, and the Gibraltar School District – a job she considers the Holy Grail of his career. Foster, the environmental performer for The Ridges, has spent most of his two years in his post adjusting to coronavirus protocols.

In January 2020, two months before pandemic rules interrupted in-person learning in schools, Foster had just helped Honig expand Gibraltar’s monthly Forest Days classes from Kindergarten to Grade 3 to include fourth, fifth and sixth years. Then they had to change gears. Working from home in March, April and May, they made videos with their cell phones, showing students what they could learn in their own backyards or in nearby parks. Honig shot videos in his eight acres of boreal (mostly evergreen) forest near Rowleys Bay, and Foster shot videos from his home near the mixed conifer and deciduous forest near the river estuary. Mink.

“We always wanted to offer families [with] a way to enjoy nature outside at home, and we came up with the concept of At Home in Nature, ”Honig said. “Twice a week on Facebook, we posted activities people could do at home during the pandemic. It was a great opportunity for the students to see how their habitats differed from the school forest, ”said Honig, referring to the Peninsula State Park grounds adjacent to the Gibraltar school campus.

But the videos were not a suitable substitute for guided hikes for the public or in-person nature lessons for schoolchildren.

Avoid classrooms

As pandemic protocols relaxed, 90-minute Forest Days classes in Gibraltar and two-hour preschool classes at Ridges Sanctuary have remained outside for social distancing.

“Before the pandemic, we would sometimes go inside cabins near the Upper Range Light and do art and other activities,” Foster said. “In fact, we’ve found that it’s so much easier to be 100% outdoors, and it’s so much better for the kids. We still don’t use the cabins for anything, and we don’t really plan to do that unless we need to.

In fact, Honig plans to keep those two-hour classes outside forever.

“If the wind chill is less than zero, we have to cancel,” she said. “Other than that, we have three year olds who are dressed properly, and they are doing fine all the time. “

Learning natural science from a book usually does not “stick” as well as learning outdoors.

“One of the things we try to do, whether it’s with kids or adults, is create a story,” Foster said. “Stories are what connects people to nature. “

Students and visitors to The Ridges in late summer and September got to see monarchs and butterflies in mourning cloaks and learn about their different ways of dealing with winter. With the butterflies present or hatched from pupae, it is easier to teach an enduring lesson as monarchs migrate to central Mexico and mourning cloaks prepare to hibernate in tree bark.

Getting to know butterflies and the plants they depend on also encourages people to protect or improve habitats and to tell others about what they have learned.

“It’s about creating an ethic of caring for the earth,” Foster said.

And often that means leaving it alone.

“We teach how we leave logs in the forest because they become nourishing logs and give new life. We are looking for deer schools and we are looking for trails in the forest, ”Honig said.

School programming, beyond science and nature lessons, includes mathematical concepts such as estimating, counting, comparing and measuring.

“When you are in the real forest and you are not sitting at a desk, you are better able to learn and use scientific vocabulary, and to use and understand scientific concepts,” said Honig, “and that’s so crucial for them later – to be able to read and understand text on these things. They fall in love with nature when they are here, and this connection with nature makes it easier to learn more technical things when they are older.

In addition to class, Honig gives students 10 minutes to find a place in the woods where they can sit on their own to draw, read, or do nothing. Many told him that they liked having the time to sit, think and relax.

“They are happier on the outside,” Honig said. “They are not ‘super happy’; they are “calmly happy”.

New route for hikers

When the coronavirus forced The Ridges Sanctuary to limit the number of people hiking to 12 and reduce the number of students attending summer camp in 2020, Foster and the organization added more programs and staff. have enhanced The Ridges’ online presence.

As demand for outdoor activities increased, The Ridges responded, adding night hikes every second Friday, starting from the Nature Center Walk. Hikers are given flashlights and stay on flat ground or the boardwalk as they enter and climb inside the historic Upper Range Lighthouse. They also stop at the beach to gaze at the stars along the way.

“The shrine is open from dawn to dusk, so it’s a chance for people to experience the shrine when they might not otherwise,” said Foster.

Program guides, a bloom calendar, and a comprehensive list of guided hikes – including Friday night outings, daily 10-kilometer hikes on rustic trails and walks, walks on secluded ridges and ancient drains, geological tours to see fossils and geological wonders at Apfels Hikes to Bluff Sanctuary and Logan Creek are all available at ridgessanctuary.org.


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