Two kindergarten classes from Bushnell Elementary School will be spending a week at the Wittenbach Wege Center (WWC), participating in Wilderness Immersion Week. This is the second year students in Emma Kluge’s class will take to an outdoor classroom, along with those in Mrs. Christians’ kindergarten class. Last year’s learning concentrated on weather and climate. The focus of this year’s immersion week is animal adaptations.
Opportunity Presents Itself
After WWC Director, Courtney Cheers received information about Annie’s Big Nature Lesson, which is a week-long study geared toward 3rd grade and older, she wanted to do something similar at the center. In working with Kluge, the two adapted the concept for kindergarten students, developing curriculum based on the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which was recently adopted in Michigan. These standards are developed to “improve science education for all students” according to the NGSS website.
Having WWC as part of the Lowell Area Schools community provides easy access to an outdoor location and hands-on experiences when it comes to learning about science and nature. Elementary aged students visit the center in fall, winter, and spring. Last November was the inaugural year for Wilderness Immersion Week, piloting with two kindergarten classes from Bushnell Elementary School. Those same two teachers will be returning next week with a new batch of kindergarten students ready and eager to learn. They will spend a little over four hours each day Monday through Thursday in the district’s nature center, with WCC staff spending about an hour each day with students on nature walks.
After evaluating last year’s immersion week, the question was posed as to whether kindergarten students are too young to benefit and learn from the experiences. “Both teachers said, without hesitation, that Wilderness Week would be the one thing that they all remembered from K[indergarten].” Cheers recalls. She has seen evidence of retaining information from now 1st grade students who were part of the program last year. “They seem so much more aware and their observation skills are terrific.”
How does spending an extended period of time away from a traditional classroom setting aid in education? According to Kluge, “Kindergarteners are still so curious – it’s the perfect opportunity to teach them to observe and explore the natural world thoughtfully and begin a life-long love of science.” She also notes that outdoor play is important for brain development at this age, leading to “improved gross motor skills, spatial awareness, collaboration, creativity, and big-picture thinking”. But don’t be fooled, the time these kindergarten students will spend at WWC will not be a half day recess. They will be making observations, creating and testing hypotheses, and acting out animal adaptations.
Citing an outdoor education book, Last Child in the Woods written by Richard Louv, Kluge provides a quote from the work. “Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion.” Her believe is that nature, and what it has to offer in the form of personal confidence, independence, and problem solving, should not be cast aside as an important role in education or for the lure of technology. Kluge’s own love of nature and exploration comes out in her teaching. Her class can often be found outside exploring the Bushnell Elementary School grounds followed by a return to the classroom to discuss observations. She believes natural settings are perfect for teaching not only science but writing, literacy, and art.
Cheers echos the ideas of Kluge. “Being able to immerse students for a week allows them to conduct field investigations, observe in the woods, wetlands, prairie, and pond, and to relax and truly discover nature.” she says. She goes on to point out the importance of teachers and parents perspective on how each child learns and loves the idea of giving a child who may be hesitant of exploring nature the opportunity to discover the outdoors and a love of getting dirty.
Earlier in the school year, all students from Bushnell Elementary School participated in a field trip to WWC where they learned about living, non-living, and dead. They talked about the difference between these three categories and searched for examples of each around the center.
Students who will be taking part in Wilderness Immersion Week will learn about animal adaptations. Topics include hibernation, migration, and camouflage. Included during the week will also be fiction and non-fiction books on these topics. They’ll also write and illustrate stories and have an introduction to scientific drawing and labeling. Additionally, they’ll participate in a service learning project aimed at developing WWC’s new meadow area.
It will be a packed week of learning and fun for participants, teachers, and parent helpers. Activities will include foraging for food before finding a good hibernation spot, pretending what it would be like migrating to a tropical location, and pretending to be a predator searching for prey which use camouflage. On the last day, students will apply what they’ve learned throughout the week to “design and build an outdoor shelter for a Michigan wild animal” according to Kluge. If that weren’t enough, observation and care of earthworms and pill bugs in an indoor habitat is also part of the week’s curriculum.
Kluge hopes to continue the program with her class in future years and even expand it. She appreciates Cheers and the staff at WWC for sharing their outdoor classroom and knowledge with her students.
Back to the Basics
Students in Kluge’s class last year loved their week at WWC and she’s anticipating the reaction will be the same this year. It is the hope that students and parents will learn the importance of being outside in nature and its ability to foster learning, growth, and focus. Even without a structured class setting, exploring nature opens the mind of all ages to learning. Taking a moment to observe and see details is important. Perhaps an individual will become curious and want to research a topic after being outdoors. Or maybe an outside experience will promote creativity through drawing or writing. Further, spending time out in nature can be invigorating for the body and mind. And for many, a combination of these things is experienced.
We will publish a Scenes from Lowell edition next week showing photos from this year’s Wilderness Immersion Week. Photos in this article are from last year’s experience, courtesy of Mrs. Kluge and used with permission. Two classrooms of kindergarten students from Bushnell Elementary School will take on nature next week at WWC, learning about how animals adapt in nature. Perhaps a few of them will find a love of outdoor curiosity which will continue throughout their lives.