The children gathered sticks to create shelters along the stream bed, chatting, splashing in the water, having fun.
They were told to make strong shelters, well placed near water and a source of food.
The fun and learning were combined in a lesson about habitats at the after-school “Get to Know Your Wild Neighbor” program at Jones Lane Elementary School on May 17.
“They are building habitats for themselves, and they are animals. They have to have everything they need [to live] in the outdoors,” said instructor Rebecca Wadler, who runs the Conservation Education Program for the Izaak Walton League National Headquarters in Gaithersburg.
Wadler, an assistant, and occasional parent volunteers run two programs at Jones Lane each week.
“I love this, I love being outside,” second-grader Lindsay Fisher said.
Loving the outside is exactly what Wadler is hoping the children will get from their time with her.
“I try to make it [unstructured] as much as possible. I tell them what we are going to do and they go off and do it,” she said. “Children just don’t have the opportunity to go outside and explore.”
If exploring means getting shoes wet in the creek or going home with muddy pants, no matter, said Rosemary Drose, co-chair of the school’s PTA Outdoor Classroom Committee.
Drose explained that the school has a unique treasure, a 1-acre outdoor classroom maintained by the PTA.
Although some teachers bring classes out for special projects, time is limited to make use of the outdoor classroom, Drose said.
“Teachers wanted more programs so the PTA reached out to the community,” Drose said. “We found all these resources that were willing and able to come to our school.”
PTA members mowed paths through the grass between the school parking lot and the Seneca Creek branch stream that make up the boundaries of the outdoor classroom.
The local chapter of the North American Bluebird Society erected eight bluebird nesting boxes.
The PTA also hired naturalists from Black Hill Regional Park Nature Center in Boyds to visit the school for a program called “Nature Everywhere Week” in which every class went to the outdoor classroom for an hour-long lesson.
The Outdoor Classroom Committee has a budget of $950 for the 2011-2012 school year. Students were each asked to pay $5 for the “Nature Everywhere Week,” Drose said, and the committee paid for those who could not, about $200. She also said the afterschool programs are paid for by participants, $100 for the eight-week program.
“We paid for the nesting boxes and for a group that came in the fall to teach fifth-graders to do a rainwater runoff assessment,” she said.
Back at the creek the students hid their food and water in or near their shelters.
Second-grader Erin Helgerman was looking rather than hiding.
“I’m trying to find really cool creatures in the water. We just found a salamander; they are under the rocks,” she said.
Third-grader William Ericson had an opinion about the class sure to warm any naturalist’s heart.
“It gets us out into nature instead of on the couch somewhere,” he said.