Eagles fly overhead and water babbles around a beaver dam as 28 Twin Cities elementary teachers attend Minnesota’s first nature-based field school specifically for them.
The group includes educators who may not have access to as much green space to adopt robust forest learning. One of the priorities of the field training is to give teachers tools to work with what they have at their schools.
“Even if your schoolyard is cement and a couple of pots of plants and maybe a patch of grass and a tree somewhere, there’s still a lot of rich learning that can happen there,” said Patty Born, director of environmental education at Hamline University.
Studies show nature-based education provides benefits for students. It reduces stress, improves attention and mood and supports academic achievement. The heart of the field school is getting teachers to think about how they can bring the natural world to their classrooms and the classrooms to nature.
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“We really want teachers to see this as an opening of the floodgates to this rich, immersive land of academic content,” Born said.
Born and her partners at the University of Minnesota realized the benefits of nature-based education were sometimes lost on students because their teachers didn’t know how to reinforce the learning once inside.
Together with the Freshwater Society and $500,000 in funding from the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources, they host five immersive nature retreats for teachers over the course of a school year.
At this season’s retreat teachers are practicing math skills, art, geography and science by making contour maps using gravel, water and variations in the land. It’s a change of pace from leading activities. They use their hands, laugh and learn something new.
Cathy Jordan leads the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota and says the program they developed is interdisciplinary and helps educators integrate nature into their lessons over the long term.
“We saw a need for really instilling in teachers a deep conceptual understanding, and a shift in their teaching practice, such that they didn't need a grab-and-go lesson provided to them. They would have the expertise to adopt or adapt existing lessons,” Jordan said.
The program also aims to address opportunity gaps in nature-based learning for students of color and low-income students.
“One of the messages we want to communicate is that this form of educational approach can be so effective because it's a bit of an equalizer,” Jordan said.
Jordan’s research found that disadvantaged or uninterested students had even greater academic achievement compared to their peers after exposure to nature-based education. The nature field school also hopes to move this way of learning into public schools.
Those are the main reasons Amanda Jagdeo, Hamline Elementary School pre-K teacher, decided to join the training.
“A lot of our students are students of color, and they don't have as much access to nature and outdoor spaces as some of the other kiddos in Minnesota do,” Jagdeo said. “So it felt important for me to get trained in a way that I could help my kids experience nature and the outdoors in a meaningful way for them.”
The program has one more year of state funding for now, but Born and Jordan said they hope to expand the program so every educator in Minnesota can know how to use their natural surroundings to teach.
Amy Benson, a teacher at Cedar Park Elementary School in Apple Valley, said the field training will help her students. She didn’t know it would be good for her too.
“I just feel that same energy, the same peace and stress release of just enjoying the quiet and seeing new things,” Benson said. “It gives you that sense of wonder like you’re a student again and helps you go back to school again, ready to teach and maybe try some new things with my kids.”