Learning naturally: Nature programs take the classroom outside
"Hummingbirds" teacher Cailey Bloomgarden-Bredin shows Elizabeth Hoffman, 5, a water creature found in Fire Pond during a summer camp session for 5-year-olds at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.
Kevin Gutting photo/Adam Orth illustration
"Hummingbirds" teacher Cailey Bloomgarden-Bredin, top left, takes her class of 5-year-olds on a summer camp hike through Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton. From left are Elizabeth Hoffman, Anthony Sager-Cutt, Elliot Wyman, Calvin Sanborn, Torin Rowlett and Eamon Lappas-Ford.
Torin Rowlett, foreground, pets a frog discovered on a hike with fellow summer campers, from left, Calvin Sanborn, Oliver Armstrong and Jasper Polin at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.
Evelyn Paasch, 5, of Northampton talks about an entry in her journal during an Earthwork Programs wilderness education summer camp for younger children in Conway. At left is Amelia Grinwis, 6, of Northampton.
"Hummingbirds" teacher Cailey Bloomgarden-Bredin, right, offers a frog for Anthony Sager-Cutt, 5, to touch during a summer camp session at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton.
Frank Grindrod, founder and director of Earthwork Programs, keeps an ember burning during a fire demonstration at a wilderness education summer camp in Conway.
Ellie Pinkham, right, and Emma Johnson, left, both of Ashfield, and Dashiell Kruckemeyer of Northampton, all 6, take turns crossing a bridge their group made during an Earthwork Programs wilderness education summer camp in Conway.
Earthwork Programs intern Andrew Row, left, of Heath and Caleb Schmitt, right, 13, of Williamsburg each grasp an end of a wooden bow to make a friction fire with a bow drill during a wilderness education summer camp in Conway. Also taking part are Maeve Dunkerley, center left, 10, of Florence, and Annabelle Magazu, center right, 8, of Wilbraham.
Eamon Lappas-Ford, 5, studies small creatures found while exploring Fire Pond at an Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary summer camp in Easthampton.
Emma Johnson, 6, of Ashfield models a mud and clay elephant mask she made during an Earthwork Programs wilderness education summer camp for younger children in Conway.
Rainier Jewett, 8, of Florence practices blending into the landscape during an Earthwork Programs wilderness education summer camp in Conway.
As he crested a densely wooded, moss-covered hill in the middle of Conway’s pine forest, Edwin Anderson, 13, of Greenfield yelled, “Wow, come and look at this!”
At his call, a half-dozen other kids scrambled up the hill. Some dropped to their knees as they examined a huge brown mushroom protruding from the pine needles on the forest floor. Moments later, Frank Grindrod of Conway knelt in the middle of the group and began to inspect the fungal wonder.
“See how it’s all shaggy on top and on the stipe? This is called ‘The Old Man of the Woods.’” he said. “Oh, and look at this one!” he said, picking up a piece of bark with a couple of fuzzy, pink mushrooms growing on it.
“It looks like the Lorax!” exclaimed one of the campers.
That day, the kids were out in the woods as part of Grindrod’s Earthwork Programs summer camp, which he runs to teach children about nature and develop skills that they can use in their everyday lives.
Getting out into woods, developing self-reliance, and teaching people how to see and interpret the natural world is the foundation for Grindrod’s school, which he established in 1999.
“I began to wonder why some kids weren’t out in the park or playground and needed to have everything spelled out for them and facilitated,” Grindrod said, noting that when he was growing up, that type of thing wasn’t as commonplace. “We spent most of our time in the woods, and everyone just had a special call or bell when it was time to come home,” he said.
Many of the Earthwork activities are in the woods of Conway. The offerings include summer camp programs where children learn how to make fires, build shelters, track wildlife, identify plants, collect wild edibles, navigate in the woods and work effectively with others.
Earthwork also offers programs for home-schooled children, families and adults. Grindrod offers workshops and classes in proper knife usage, wilderness cuisine and animal tracking.
Grindrod said that nature programs are an excellent way to build confidence, self-reliance, and teamwork and to broaden how children see the natural world.
“I have had parents say, ‘I don’t know what you have done to my kid but it has changed them,’” Grindrod said. “My vision is that kids and adults become more comfortable in the outdoors. I can facilitate that connection with nature, then pull myself out of the picture and let them explore develop their own relationship with the natural world.”
Grindrod said a key to successful environmental education is the careful balance of fun, information and safety.
“We have to be careful about the gloom-and-doom message,” he said. “That can be overwhelming and paralyzing. We are more about filling people’s vessels with hope.”
Great Falls Discovery Center
Earthwork Programs isn’t the only organization in the area that seeks to educate kids about the natural world. The Great Falls Discovery Center, located at 2 Avenue A in Turners Falls, offers exhibits and programs, most of them free, that focus on the natural, cultural and industrial history of the Connecticut River watershed.
Located within a complex of old mill buildings on a four-acre campus, the center opened in 2004 through a partnership between the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the town of Montague. It runs programs such as Kidleidoscope, which introduces children to the natural world through stories, games and crafts, and canal-side nature walks through the village, during which visitors are taught about plants animals and mill town history.
“The center is dedicated to education about the Connecticut River and its watershed,” said Laurel Carpenter, a park ranger and visitor services specialist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “It’s a national wildlife refuge and we educate people about the natural history of the river and the culture of the Turners Falls area.”
Carpenter said the center’s various exhibits take guests through a curated tour of the entire 410-mile long river. The displays showcase the different environments that can be found along the river, including salt marshes, beaches and woodland, as well as the different types of plants and animals that can be found in them.
“It’s a realistic representation of how the river looks from source to sea,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said the center also hosts field trips during shad season in the spring and travels to local schools for live animals shows and lectures.
Throughout the summer, DCR park interpreter Janel Nockleby runs a series of programs and storytelling events. Her lectures and demonstrations cover a variety of topics, including history lessons about Turners Falls’ paper mills and the river’s watershed.
“All of the stories are interrelated and they ultimately aim to give kids some nugget of information to take away with them,” said Nockleby. “Today was about butterflies and hopefully some of them walked away knowing that butterflies aren’t born with wings!”
The Northfield Mountain Environmental and Recreation Center, 99 Millers Falls Road, Northfield, has been offering outdoors recreation and education experiences since 1972. Owned and operated by FirstLight Power Resources and parent company, GDF SUEZ Energy North America, the facility features 26 miles of hiking, mountain biking and horse riding trails, a rock climbing area and boat cruises up and down the Connecticut River.
During the riverboat cruises, visitors board the Quinnetukut II to travel up and down the nearby French King Gorge, where they are given information about the natural and geological history of the river. The rides run three times per day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, until Oct. 19.
While there is a charge for the riverboat cruises and some equipment rentals, many of the center’s programs are free.
On Sept. 6, visitors will be able to participate in a “Yoga Hike” around the mountain, which will feature periodic stops for stretching along the trail.
“Both benefit the body, mind and spirit, so combining them has extra benefits,” said Kim Noyes, the center’s environmental program coordinator.
Noyes said the facility will host a family event on Sept. 20 during which children and their parents will capture bugs and insects to examine and learn about them.
“They’ll catch anything and look at everything,” said Noyes. “It’s an opportunity to get families outside and exploring. We’re big believers in the importance of getting both children and adults outside.”
Northfield Mountain will also partner up with the Great Falls Discovery Center on Sept. 26 and 27 for the “Source to Sea” clean-up of the Connecticut River from 9 a.m. to noon. The event will be staged at the Great Falls Discovery Center.
Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary
The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary at 127 Combs Road, Easthampton, has 70 years of experience in conservation and land protection, environmental education and advocacy. The sanctuary has 720 acres of forest, meadows, grasslands, marsh and wetlands.
“We have grown considerably over the years and we offer a wide and expanding range of environmental programming,” sanctuary Director Jonah Keane said. “Our nature preschool is one of our flagship programs that began in the 1970s. It is a really nice way to get very small children out into the woods.”
The preschool for children ages 3 to 5 is offered from mid-September to mid-June and children learn about plants and animals through hands-on programs.
The Arcadia summer nature day camp uses forests, fields and vernal pools as the setting for youngsters to explore different ecological communities. Campers ages 4 to 16 take hikes, play nature-oriented games, take up arts and crafts and learn about nature photography.
The sanctuary also offers a variety of programs throughout the year that feature outdoor activities that include building natural structures such as tepees made of black locust and grapevine branches, learning about wildlife and ecosystems and creating art from natural materials.
Arcadia opens its doors to school groups and sends educators out into school classrooms.
Arcadia bird-watching programs are geared both for children and adults. “We have a heron rookery here as well as a bald eagle’s nest right on the property,” Keane said.
“We tie what we do here to the bigger picture addressing issues like a loss of connection with nature, habitat loss, and climate change,” Keane added. “Environmental education is key for helping people address these issues, as it helps them to make educated and informed decisions.”
Located on 26 acres of conservation land in Amherst, the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St. recently celebrated 50 years of providing environmental programming.
The center offers a summer nature camp for children ages 6 to 10, year-round programs for children and families, adult programs, field trips, school programs and curriculum for home schooling.
“We are passionate about our work,” said Colleen Kelley, education director at Hitchcock. “For a small staff of 12, we cover a pretty big area, including Holyoke, Northampton, Deerfield, Greenfield and Montague.”
Hitchcock’s parent and child preschool program offers weekly outdoor exploration combined with learning experiences fostering curiosity about the natural world. Fall and spring sessions are offered Friday mornings and afternoons.
The summer nature camp includes themed sessions such as finding patterns in nature, the buzz about bees, geology rocks and animal superheroes.
The Hitchcock Center abuts and works closely with Bramble Hill Farm, a 120-acre property that provides learning space for programs.
“It is a really great collaboration,” Kelley said. “For example, the farm has bees and beehives, and this year they bought extra beekeeper suits for the kids.”
The center also shares a border and frequently partners with the Common School, and also provides curriculum for children being home schooled.
“There is so much research now that shows how much we lose by not being in the woods,” Kelley said. “I have seen kids who have difficulty in traditional school settings thrive in outdoor situations.
“I love to see kids growing up and becoming healthy, confident and comfortable in the woods and building the skills to resolve environmental problems,” she added.
For more information:
Earthwork Programs: http://earthworkprograms.com 413-340-1161
Great Falls Discovery Center: http://greatfallsdiscoverycenter.org 413-863-3221
Northfield Mountain: www.firstlightpower.com 413-659-3714
Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary: www.massaudubon.org 413-584-3009
Hitchcock Center: www.hitchcockcenter.org 413-256-6006.
Staff reporter Tom Relihan started working at The Recorder in 2014. He covers Conway, Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately and. He can be reached at 413-772-0261, ext. 264, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fran Ryan is a contributing writer for the Daily Hampshire Gazette.