Nov. 10, 2015 -- The average American child spends four to seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and more than seven hours a day in front of a screen. The After School Nature Club, a new initiative at Boulevard Elementary, takes a huge swipe at that statistic. It also supports Boulevard’s STEM curriculum in an engaging, hands-on way.
Seven K-2nd grade students participated in the After School Nature Club at Boulevard this fall. Funding from the Boulevard PTA and a local contributor provided scholarships, so children with limited access to nature-based-learning were able to enjoy the opportunity.
“They were so enthusiastic. They wanted to get their hands on everything!” said Katrina Heinzen, Nature Center at Shaker Lakes Environmental Educator and Fairfax parent.
Even kids reticent about getting dirty eventually dug in during the first session on insects. Rolling over logs and lifting up stones, the students were thrilled to discover all sorts of bugs, right there in near-plain sight. In other sessions, they acted out animals; how they hunt, the sounds they make, where they live. They spend that time outside, until 4:30 p.m. every Thursday for six weeks.
The After School Nature Club is a result of a partnership that began last year between Boulevard and the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes. The Nature Center assisted in the installation of an outdoor learning lab on the north side of the building, with native plantings and a naturalized outdoor learning space that includes seating, a butterfly garden, and a rain garden.
“Since then, we've been in frequent contact with the Nature Center about how to use the lab, discussing mutually beneficial opportunities around outdoor learning,” said STEM program specialist Jackie Taylor.
Boulevard has deepened its commitment to outdoor learning with this new outdoor resource. During school hours, “the outdoor learning space is used all the time by our students and teachers,” explained Taylor. “They use it to do science experiments or just to read. We have a shed that houses tables and chairs, we also have a dry erase board for whole group instruction. We have tree stumps that the kids sit on for whole group instruction. We use our grounds all year to observe how life grows and changes throughout the year.”
The After School Nature Club proved even more hands-on.
“Each week we learned about different types of animals and the characteristics that make them special. After insects, we’ve handled snails, amphibians, frogs and turtle shells,” said Heinzen.
The last session was devoted to trees and the ecosystem. Harvesting the fallen bounty from the large buckeye tree near the playground, the kids wondered aloud if buckeye seeds—poisonous to humans—are similarly dangerous to squirrels.
“The Nature Center was able to bring in resources so students can engage in hands-on learning about animals and how they survive,” said Taylor. “We were blessed with beautiful weather almost every day of our six-week session, so we were also able to take full advantage of our outdoor learning lab.”
Asked about the most important thing about the program, Heinzen and Taylor are in agreement:
“The time outside! Playing, exploring, learning without even realizing it. And all without playground equipment.” Or screens.
In prior years, Canterbury and Noble have hosted The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes in afterschool programs. This is the first year for Boulevard’s program, but likely not the last. They hope to offer the program again next fall.
When the last session ended, Program Specialist Jackie Taylor was careful to remind each child that there was no meeting next week, that the program had finished. Every single child uttered the same disappointed “awww!” It’s a sound parents might recognize: the same as when a child is called in too early from outdoors.