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Nature Education: A Subject for All

By Alexandra G. Rivera

 


Photo Credit: Laura Milkert

Alexandra G. Rivera reflects on her experience participating in The Field Museum's Environment, Culture, and Conservation Division's Mighty Acorns program for 4th-6th graders.

 

 

I am Ms. Rivera, a Chicago Public Schools Science teacher. I’m fortunate to teach at Douglas Taylor Elementary, a beautiful school overlooking Lake Michigan on Chicago’s south side. The Mighty Acorns program, offered at our school through The Field Museum, connects our students to nature and has been a part of our science curriculum for almost a decade.

 

The sound of running engines that can be heard in the city doesn't compare to the peaceful sounds and benefits of nature. Our lives are so busy in the city that we forget how important it is for our children to experience what nature has to offer. I want my students to feel the rough texture of bark while attempting to climb a tree, to hear the buzzing sound of an insect while they shoo it away, to see butterflies flying from one flower to the next, to identify animal tracks while on a walk, and to see an animal they have only seen in pictures.  I want them to be able to feel the cool breeze by the lake and to see their reflection in the clean water of Lake Michigan.  In a life full of demands, I want my students, as well as their parents, to be able to find a place near home where they can take a full breath of clean air and hear themselves think. I want them to be as appreciative and respectful of nature as I am.

While we live in an era where technology plays an important role in our society and education, it is also important that we recognize the major role nature plays in our lives.  It is no secret that children use technology at home as a part of their daily routine - watching TV, listening to their audio devices, playing on the computer, exchanging texts, etc. - all to the point that it seems normal. According to an article published by the National Wildlife Association, by the time most children in the U.S. attend kindergarten they have watched more than 5,000 hours of television - that’s the same amount of time it takes someone to earn a college degree.

Children may hear impressive stories about dinosaurs or the largest snowstorm in Chicago and although talking about it may sound exciting, it doesn't compare to personal experience.  This is the same with nature; we love fresh air so much that we go to our local shopping center and buy it! We even purchase things such as “spring water” and download nature sounds on our iPods. Amazingly this is all in our backyard if we learn to notice and appreciate it.

Photo credit: Carmella Silva

The Mighty Acorns curriculum allows our students to go on field trips to natural areas and make connections to what they learn in the classroom.  The program has been great to our students. It provides not only the curriculum, but the guidance of field experts, free buses to our sites, and The Field Museum itself. We have one trip per season: fall, winter, and spring. Almost everyone who participates in the program asks about the upcoming field trip (even parents who thought they would not like it).  Students who participate in this program receive a special invitation to the Mighty Acorns Nature Camp.  At Taylor, students who attend Nature Camp have many exciting stories to share at the beginning of our school year.

My 5th grade class and I have had the fortune of having parents join in our Mighty Acorns field trips as chaperones. Our parent volunteers/chaperones often stay behind and observe their children playing and talking about what animals they think have been around. The children point to and talk about plants that are invasive to our area and need to be removed while explaining to each other that the seeds of a certain flower are probably dispersed by air, due to its properties. Impressive, isn’t it?

I distinctly remember the look on my students faces when they noticed hoof tracks on a trail at the Sand Ridge Nature Center; next to it, prints of much smaller hoof tracks.  Soon they made the connection that there had been an adult deer on the trail guiding the fawn! They got quiet and began looking around in hopes that they would see them. Their eyes were so wide and their excitement was almost irrepressible. The chaperones were impressed and shared in their excitement.

Children learn about their environment through classroom lessons and this is great. However, through “field exploration” children can actually experience first hand what is being taught in the classroom.  Through the Mighty Acorns curriculum, students learn about the importance of preserving natural spaces and the impact we have on them.

Teachers educate students about the different species of plants and animals that are native and non-native to their neighborhood and whether or not their habitats are being threatened.  Most importantly, students learn several ways we can help preserve these natural spaces and take action. While children often get in trouble for getting muddy, Mighty Acorns stewardship allows them to have fun with a purpose; they no longer pull random plants out and instead learn to take care of their natural areas!  

 The removal of invasive species is important for the survival and preservation of our natural spaces and we, the Mighty Acorns, take a very important part in the conservation of nature in Cook County. 

As a result of this program, Taylors’ students have taken action by taking part in our school recycling program. A week after our lesson on Endangered Species, one of my students said: “I told my mom, that we pollute our environment when we throw trash out the window, my mom now carries a bag in the car”.  Another student raised the question that “instead of building such wide buildings and take so much of our natural space for shopping stores, shouldn’t people be building up?” The students’ sense of awareness is just incredible.

Photo credit: Betsy Quail

As an educator, I feel fortunate to be a part of The Field Museum's Mighty Acorns program that fosters the relationship between parents, educators, children and nature.  I believe that anyone who has attended a Mighty Acorns field trip (child or adult) has left their footprint and impacted his or her future and giving them pride of having done so.