Nature-Based Resources Support Self-Directed Learning

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Learning through the lens of our community not only supports interests and education, but it also strengthens a sense of place. This feeling of connection to where you live and the places you visit is vital to creating sustainable and resilient communities. In this TEDx Talk, Supporting Education Through Community Engagement, Hilltown Families Founder, Sienna Wildfield, shares the story of the history and mission of Hilltown Families.

During a time when families are being asked to practice social distancing, and curriculum-based learning is online, community-based resources accessible to everyone can also help families support their children’s education through nature-based experiential learning. A few things to highlight:

  • Food, habitat, and heritage are useful points of entry when looking for community resources to support learning.
  • Suitable nature-based resources include wildlife sanctuaries, conservation properties, native species, and local weather.
  • Nature-based resources can support a wide variety of interests, including local history & natural history, map skills & geography, botany & zoology, and phenology & scientific study.
  • The trick to benefiting from these learning opportunities is to be curious, ask questions, and to follow your interests.

Wildlife Sanctuaries & Native Species Support Nature-Based Learning

Local History & Natural History

Embedded learning is intrinsically found in nature. Most wildlife sanctuaries and conservation properties remain open to the public during this time of self-quarantine, including Mass AudubonThe Trustees, and the Hilltown Land Trust. While buildings and bathroom facilities are closed, many invite individuals and families to enjoy a self-guided hike along their hiking trails.

Many trail options can support a wide variety of interests, including local history by checking out the historic old lime kiln at Lime Kiln Farm in Sheffield, MA, and the historic home of children’s author Thornton W. Burgess at Laughing Brook in Hampden, MA. And natural history via scenic views of the Deerfield River Valley at High Ledges in Shelburne, MA, and the dramatic rock canyon at Chesterfield Gorge in West Chesterfield, MA.

Map Skills & Geography

For many of The Trustees’ properties, maps are available at the bulletin board in their parking areas, or you can download trail maps before heading out to plan your visit. Looking at maps with your kids supports map skills through the interpretation of geographical information. Then using the maps in your outings connects their learning to place (place-based learning).

Botany & Zoology

For younger children, download Mass Audubon’s Spring Walk Bingo Cards and go on a scavenger hunt during your hike. Look for moss on logs, lichen on rocks, signs of animals, sounds of birds, emerging insects, budding plants… and get curious! Ask questions during your discovery (“How does lichen grow on a rock?” “What kind of insect is this?”) Compare and contrast what you find (i.e., tree bark, bird calls, mosses). You don’t need to know the answers. Just let curiosity lead the way! If you have field guides, bring them with you, or take pictures and research online when you return home.

When out in nature, look out for vernal pools too! Vernal pools are temporary pools of water that emerge and come to life during this season, offering animals and plants a distinctive habitat. Many amphibians and insects utilize vernal pools for egg-laying because vernal pools provide a safe habitat devoid of fish for young amphibians and insects to survive and grow. The most common inhabitants of vernal pools are frogs and toads. There are many places in Western Massachusetts where one can explore the ecology, habitat, and wildlife of vernal pools, including the Deerfield River and the Westfield River watersheds.

Local Weather & Native Species Support STEM Learning

Phenology & Citizen Science

Phenology is the study of cyclic and/or seasonal phenomena in plants and animals, especially in relation to weather and climate. Both of which are accessible community-based resources to all! Relationships and interactions in nature depend much on timing, and this timing can be studied in order to understand climate change better. Recording phenological events give us an idea of how climate has changed over time – keeping track of flowering times allows us to see how they change each year, or decade, or century!

The famous writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, who is known for his nature journals, recorded the flowering times of many different plant species. Thoreau’s observations have since been used in studies on the impact of climate change on plants in New England.

Families can help with studies of phenology in a similar way to Thoreau! The National Phenology Network has developed Nature’s Notebook, a citizen science program that aims to get people outdoors and observing nature. Nature’s Notebook has an app and a website where citizen scientists can record observations to help scientists better understand how climate change is affecting plants in New England. The National Phenology Network needs volunteers to take part in many of the Nature’s Notebook projects, of which there are several throughout the country.

Independent, citizen science like Nature’s Notebook is a great way to connect with nature, learn about phenology, practice gathering data, and learn the basics of experimental design while contributing to a scientific study.

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