Teach Wonder

A Naturewalk Through Childhood

August 29, 2021 The Center for Excellence in STEM Education Season 1 Episode 4
Teach Wonder
A Naturewalk Through Childhood
Show Notes Transcript

Jenn Kirts is the Director of Programs and Chippewa Nature Center. Jenn shares her passion for Place-Based Learning and gives practical tips on how to get started! She walks us through the "why" and "how" of getting kids connected outdoors. She also discusses the value of getting children invested in their community and the power of seeing and interacting with local nature.

Chippewa Nature Center
DNR and Education
MAEOE
Chippewa Nature Center on Facebook

Ashley O'Neil:

Okay, now we're recording.

Julie Cunningham:

So welcome to teach wonder.

Ashley O'Neil:

Yes, Welcome to Teach Wonder

Julie Cunningham:

A podcast hosted by

Ashley O'Neil:

Ashley O'Neal

Julie Cunningham:

and Julie Cunningham.

Ashley O'Neil:

Today's interview called for a bit of a different start. We're talking with Jen Kurtz about place based learning. She's passionate about connecting children with the outdoors. So we came here to her work on the Chippewa Nature Center to take a walk. This place happens to be a favorite spot for our family. So when I found out that Jenn was wanting to talk to us, I was thrilled. She's packed this interview with practical tips for taking your class outside, why it matters to your community, and what PBL can look like if you aren't close to nature. And whether or not you're planning to start PBL today, tomorrow, I'm not sure you're willing to start it ever, you're going to leave this interview, totally inspired. Enjoy.

Julie Cunningham:

We are here today with Jenn Kirts. And Jenn is the program director at the Chippewa Nature Center. And through the center for excellence in STEM education, we've been lucky enough to work with Jenn in a couple of different capacities lately. And really the tip one Nature Center. And so because we feel so lucky to have had those experiences, we want to share some of those experience with our listeners today.

Ashley O'Neil:

So welcome. Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to be here. Yeah. So I would just like to hear a little bit more about you how you came into this role, what your role is. So if you just want to tell us a little bit about yourself, that would be great.

Jenn Kirts:

Sure. So my role here at the Nature Center as director of programs is to support all the different programmatic aspects of Chippewa Nature Center. So everything from our self guided exhibits to our public programs, our nature, preschool, school programs, nature day camp, I get to support all those different parts and pieces as we work to connect all people to nature. So our mission is to connect all people to nature through educational recreational experiences. And so that happens in a ton of different ways. I landed in this place, because growing up I spent a ton of time outdoors and I saw I wanted to be like a ranger for National Park Service, or DNR figured out that was law enforcement didn't really want to do that. So I went to college and got a Bachelor's in biology and Spanish figured out I loved Spanish, I love communicating with people. But that wasn't an academic pursuit for me. So I got a master's in conservation biology at CMU, actually. And in the process of that my research was in the wintertime, I needed a summer job. And I came over to Chippewa Nature Center and worked as a day camp counselor here. After a couple summers of that I sort of looked up and realized that there were people helping people connect to nature year round, that it was a career, it was called interpretation. And that what I was really passionate about for the Conservation end of things was helping people make that connection. So I am a science geek. I love reading the studies, I love knowing all the nitty gritty pieces of ecology and how it all works together. But what I really love is helping just the average person, fall in love with nature and value it. And I feel really strongly that that's one of the best ways to create stewards is for people to fall in love with it, then they learn about it, and then they want to protect it. So I was fortunate enough to hang out here long enough, they let me be camp director for 10 years. And then they let me add school program coordinator to it. And eventually I've been able to step into the role of director of programs. So for me, it's been just a journey of education and experience and really seeing the benefits of providing experiences to kids in particular, like I love connecting with adults. And there's tons of people that come to nature sort of later in life, or come back to it after they've started their career and raise their family and they suddenly have time on their hands and decide that they want to do that. But there's something really magical about walking through childhood with kids and just their passion for learning in nature is just such a powerful place for that to happen. So it's been a fun, fun place to arrive at in my career. And I'm just continuing to facilitate those connections between kids in nature and people nature has been such a privilege. I love it.

Julie Cunningham:

Well, your passion is contagious. So I imagine that it also is contagious for those students that come your way So, gentlemen, I think about teachers that come to you, and classrooms that come to you. And maybe even I don't know as much about the School of the classrooms as I should that at the tip one Nature Center. But when you think about, I'm going to call it like play space education, or even outdoor education. What led you to that, I mean, you're obviously passionate about that. So what led you to that type of instruction, I guess.

Jenn Kirts:

So, um, I love academics, I'm actually in the graduate program right now, because I can't stay out of the classroom. But for lots of people, learning in context is the most powerful way to learn. And so when a child has the opportunity to do something that engages their mind and their body, that it's physical, that it's tied to something they're familiar with, they are more engaged in in just so many more levels than if they're sitting in a classroom, reading a textbook and filling out a worksheet, or even watching a video and you know, writing about it. So it's when you have the opportunity to take kids and, and put them in their school yard, and engage in meaningful ways there, bring them to the Nature Center, which is a local place. That gives them the opportunity to connect all these different pieces in their brain. So we have field trips where students come here, we also will go into programs at school yards, we love to have students here at the Nature Center, I mean, we have ponds, we have fields, we have forests, we have all these amazing things for them to connect to. But sometimes the more powerful experiences for them to discover nature on their school yard. And then also, it's not one dimensional. So a lot of teachers come to the Nature Center for a social studies lesson or a science lesson that ties to those curriculum. But the truth of the matter is, when kids have an authentic experience, then they can draw on that for era that creates a richer experience to tie into their writing it correct creates a richer experience to tie with their reading twos reading. So you know, kids get passionate about reading things when they have something in real life to tie that to. And so those authentic experiences, whether that's at their school yard at a nearby park, or here at the Nature Center, you just see kids transform in a way that doesn't always happen in the classroom. And sometimes it's different kids, there are kids who are wired, and they can be super successful in traditional assignments. And, and those kids are also successful in place based learning and outdoor education. But the kids who struggle to sit in a desk and stay focused for that period of time, because of the sensory feedback and the different environment and the richness of the environment. And outdoor education and place based education speaks to them in a way that traditional classroom might not. So we have a relationship with bullet Creek schools. And they bring kids over for Creek week, where they get to spend a week here. So they get bused back and forth to the school at the beginning and end of the day, but they spend the school day here at the Nature Center. As a camp director for 10 years, I got to watch kids move through camp in their childhood. And I'm seeing the results of the knowledge that they gained and the experience that they gained. And I mean, I've been at it long enough that some of them have headed to college. And maybe they're not going into you know, conservation or biology. They might be computer engineers, or they might be going into physical therapy, or they might be going into the arts. But it's really fun to talk to them and talk about how transformative those experiences were. And they have a really strong sense of place to like they know what's in their local environment. And they value that. And that's just so powerful. Like I grew up, I was the generation that you learned all about the rain forest and how we needed to save the rain forests. But there was really nothing about like your local ecosystems. And so when you do place based education, you start understanding your local ecosystems. So we teach about our rivers and how they behave. And they flood and we really experienced that in 2020, here in Midland, and you teach about the the insects that they can find. And then they encounter those again in their backyard. Or you learn about the frogs that live here. And why water has to be healthy for them here. And so kids can really connect to that, in a way. You know, the Arctic, we can watch shows about it and the rain forest, we can do the same thing. But those are sort of abstract. And when it's right here in your community, it's actually on the ground and you can see it and participate in it. And that's just so powerful for kids and for adults.

Ashley O'Neil:

Oh- know you said so many great things. That was wonderful. So a couple of points I just want to hit on so you you mentioned that increased sensory input that kids are getting when they're outside. And from a personal standpoint, I see that with my own kids, right. My son is in physical therapy and they would do like you want to play with the cookies or the ball or the whatever and the and they're in this great space. It's super fun gym and he was just kind of apathetic about the whole thing. And we suggested that they take him outside into the little Woods base behind them. And it was like a totally different kid, right, he came alive, he was really excited and engaged. And so I see that from a parent's standpoint, just how there's a total facet to my kid that just wakes up when he's in an outdoor space and that you don't see inside and his therapist or you could send that to your teacher, it doesn't get to see that side either. So I think it's really powerful for teachers to participate in that actively, because then they get to see that full experience of that kid, maybe your student who, because of the classroom context comes across as moving and bouncing and, and, and ready to go all the time, right, and the classroom is hard to contain that energy outside, you get to see another side of them, and they may thrive and you can respect and value what they're bringing to the table. The second thing that you said that was really interesting to me was that giving students just about focusing on the rain forest and the ocean, or the entire attic being so abstract, versus being in nature in your own space. And we talk a lot about kids as agents of change and having this identity where they see themselves as being able to participate. And I think you really hit on that idea. If they can say, Well, I can change the rain forests, it feels really abstract. But if they say I can take care of our local woods, and the place that I walk by every day, and I see that as nature, rather than like nature's far away, and this is just my neighborhood, that's really cool.

Jenn Kirts:

We talk about all that time, all the time, that that we want nature to be accessible to everyone. Not everyone has a gigantic park or a nature center that's accessible to them. But everyone has a patch of lawn, or a little shrubby space outside their classroom windows. There's there's something there. And the fact of the matter is on every school year there amps, there are Beatles there is some sort of green thing even it's just a mowed lawn. And so the idea that nature is somewhere else that you have to go to play space education releases. No, no, it's not, it's right here. And when you spend time in those close spaces, then you start to value them, then you value your school yard more than you value your neighborhood more than you value that park if you get it, you know, if you do have access to it more. And when you talk about career wise, there's there's a strong push about, you know, retention of workers and I struggle a little bit with planning kids careers when they're five. But if you are, if you are creating a sense of place, then kids value where they grew up, and there's not necessarily this really pushed to the other. There's like this, this place where I came from, I know a lot about it. And it's really important to me. And when that ties to all their other subjects, and it ties to their whole school experience and their whole community. Then you create, you create citizens who are engaged as well as, you know, environmental stewards who are engaged, like it's just it's such a holistic way of looking at things in it really comes from connecting outdoors. And just being willing to go outside and take a look around and see what's there and be curious

Julie Cunningham:

and capitalize on that curiosity, right. So when when students are young, that natural curiosity is there. And so capturing that and building upon that is, is exciting. I know you've addressed a couple of and I'm going to say that there could be challenges or opportunities. But sometimes when people think about place based education, and you've mentioned right, it could be a lawn or everybody's got ants and spiders. And so you've addressed a couple of those challenges that might come up naturally already. But I know there are other things that people might consider to be that one might think are opportunities that we can write, figure out how to how to solve that, but that other people might think, Wow, this just really as a challenge is difficult to overcome in my school day. So can you give your thoughts on what some of those might be and how you would think about him?

Jenn Kirts:

Sure. One challenge that we hear from teachers, sometimes it's just sort of that Inkster nervousness about taking kids outside the four walls of their classroom. You know, you have those six kids bouncing off the walls, and don't listen great inside those four walls, and you're worried about what's going to happen when you go outside. You have the kid who wanders off when you're inside the building, you're worried about what that might look like outside the building. So that's real. And one of the things that we talked about, as we do trainings for teachers, is to make your outdoor teaching time separate from recess. So don't try to turn your recess time into teaching time. But instead establish and it takes more than one time. If you just go out and do it once. You're not going to get there. But if you go out and you have a space at a school, that is your teaching space that's different than your recess space or it's at a different time that can work to that helps and also setting natural boundaries. Whether that's, you know, The line on the concrete to the grass to the tree line to the sidewalk like this is going to be our classroom space. That is super helpful. A couple of schools have picked up two way radios. So they drop one at the office and say we're heading outside, you know, leave that on the Secretary's desk in case they need extra support. And then they take one with them, or someone else on the teaching team or doubling up so that you do have two staff members, whether that's two classes go out at the same time. And they use adjacent spaces so that there's just, you know, two sets of eyes there, or whether you have a parent in your classroom for a particular time of the day. And that's when you choose to go outside, so you have a second staff member. So there's ways to mitigate that. But part of it is just structurally doing it differently than they do recess. And so setting up where the space is going to be what you're going to do have a plan ahead of time, sometimes that setting stuff out ahead of time. So one of the things that sometimes our staff do free, like get picture book for young kids, and hanging along on a path, and you start it and you bring it back around, and kids will go from the next to the next to the next. So we've talked a lot here about managing behavior by structuring the environment by having natural boundaries. mean honestly, it doesn't have to be natural, you could borrow a couple cones from the gym teacher, and put them out and say this is our classroom space. This is where we're going to be today. And the other thing that we talked about is, you know, kids have busy bodies. And outside, they can move around a lot and keeping those instruction periods really short, and then keeping the activity sort of intuitive. So they know what to do. So what I'll do a lot of times, is gathered them together and have taken me and then they're sort of grounded in a space, do a quick introduction explanation, and then have materials ready for them to go do and then have a callback, we use squirrel calls that you can pick up for like eight bucks on Amazon, you shake it and it sounds like the squirrel and the kids get excited other people use calls, things like that a recall. And so it's like when you hear this noise, you come back, and you can practice that a couple times, you can make it silly, but that way they understand what the expectations are. And you just set that up ahead of time, you can practice that part in the classroom. The other barrier, I think, to play space education is it feels huge. Like it feels like you have to incorporate all of your subjects right away. And like dig in deep and like transform your whole curriculum today. And encourage teachers that it really can start small, it can start by taking your math unit that you have to do measurements and going out and measuring stuff in the playground with your you know, non traditional units, like how many feet tall is the slide? Yeah, they get to go up reverse on the side, which they never get to do when every child wants to, you know. So you can start with just taking a piece and thinking about how you can do that outside or take your reading, like if you read out loud, take that and say, you know, okay, after you know lunch recess, we're going to gather, set our stuff down. And then we're going to go sit in the lawn and do it read out loud, and just start taking pieces, the transfer easily outside. And then as you as the teacher gets to know your environment better, you'll start seeing other pieces that you can put together. And the Nature Center is a great resource for figuring out books and resources that are local. So taking a look at a science curriculum, and it has stuff that, you know, is the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. But these are the standards that you're supposed to meet, and instead saying, Okay, how can we help you flip that to books related to deciduous forests and Michigan, and and what might that lesson look like in real life, so we can help with that too. But just little little pieces is a great way to start. And as as your own comfort level builds, you'll be able to incorporate year after year more and more, I think that like oh my gosh, I have to rewrite my whole curriculum and how I do everything is really hard. And lots of teachers work in a district where you have to spend 25 minutes on math and document and you have to spend 35 minutes on eally and document it. And that's harder to do when you integrate everything. So just start by taking those pieces, and just work on the ones that are easy first. And then the rest starts coming when your mind starts shifting and knowing more.

Julie Cunningham:

I know Ashley's gonna have something to say to that. But so I'm going to get my comments in first. (laughter) I appreciate so much that you gave really specific suggestions for how to set it up outside because I don't think there's a single one of us who have been classroom teachers who who wouldn't think about how to set up our classrooms for instruction, right? We would all I mean, we do that in the makerspace. For a field trip, you completely think about how students are going to learn best in this indoor space and what parameters you need to have in place and how many adults and how you're going to get you know, a second set of hands if you need it and all those things like we think about in our classrooms all the time. But then it does start to think you do start to feel like what outside could be more like real And you don't, I think it's not as natural to put as many of those parameters in place. Whereas it certainly could and should be right. And as educators, we know how to do that. So Ashley, it's your t rn,

Ashley O'Neil:

I was waiting! dDid you see my hands like clamped together? So a couple of things that I thought were so powerful both from Jen, I taught first grade for a bit and kindergarten for a bit. And I was a special education teacher for a bit. So I, a lot of the things that you were saying about that balance of structure and freedom really resonate with me, I loved what you said about keeping the instructional period short, I think that's something that we forget to do. And sometimes because we're feeling like, there's maybe a less, we're in a less controlled environment, there's no physical spaces to stop my kids from leaving, we have to put extra structure in place. And I love what you said. So I, I've been in the position where I sit down with my kids and the lesson control I feel, the more structure I feel like I need. So I sit and have these long conversations. Wait, what are we going to do? And this is the situation, this is what you're going to say, and I try to control it with my voice and my talking. And I think that's a great reminder for us to say, no, they're busy bodies need to move, lean into that and let them go do the thing. Right and keep it short. I have a recall plan. So I just thought that that was that was so great. Um, you mentioned that you do some resource work with teachers to kind of flip to bring their science standards back. Do you see? Do you see how do you see that lining up really well, with making place based education feel more realistic for teachers? So instead of trying to connect the Sonoran Desert, to checkpoint Nature Center, or to our local park? Do you see that helping teachers at all?

Jenn Kirts:

Absolutely, because then that takes like, okay, we need to watch a video on this because we can't actually see it, we can say you can go out to a pollinator plot if you have it. Or you can go out to the playground if you have it. Or you can, instead of watching this experiment on a video from With a few simple materials, you can actually conduct it yourself. And if it's messy, that's the other thing about getting outside. If it's messy, who cares. You don't have to apologize to your school custodians afterwards, for the messy Baby, it's much easier to do that outside. And so. So teachers once often once you can talk through it and brainstorm. It's like, Oh my gosh, like this, this is so much better. And, and yes, it takes 30 minutes to go outside and do this realistically, 45 because you got to get out there and you got to get back versus a five minute video that then they talk about it. But then as you hear the kids having conversations, and sometimes especially younger kids, the teacher will see them. We interact, like replaying what happened on the playground. So like they'll we do the experiment, and they will have conversations and they'll do play around it. And so then you've created this context that you can hang other things on. I think the challenge for a lot of elementary teachers in particular, is that pseudo science, most of them specialize in math, or era and science, some people do, but not everyone has that. That experience. So So oftentimes, teachers themselves aren't super comfortable in science is sort of the go to, but I would say if LA is you're saying, look for ways to do that, you know, look for the books about about the local, the local ecosystem. And the local community, like, obviously, nature is the way that I land with things as my background, and I work at Chippewa Nature Center. But playspace learning can also be about what are the social social challenges in your community, especially as you're talking about older elementary kids, but even young kids can understand that, you know, there's migrant families in my community, there are families of color in my community, there are families who struggle with this in my community, this is an asset of my community, we have a manufacturing plant in our community. And they can you can get texts on that you can talk about that you through all those things. And that is placed education as well, is really understanding what is my community made up of, you know, in Midland flooding is huge. Chemistry is huge. We have a huge hospital system here. That's part of the identity of this community, and the rivers and the natural spaces a piece of that, but so is the social story of it in the industry and the employment and the different family types. And so, so if LA is your thing, then look for resources that brings that in. If math is your thing, think about ways like you know, basically he's got the sugar plant, like do problems about how many sugar beets fit in a semi truck and how many sugar beets are needed to make a pound of sugar and and that starts incorporating all these parts and pieces together. So whatever your specialty is, just start with what's most comfortable, and start looking around and your community and you have to get to know the community as a teacher. Like if you're not from there. Then you have to start digging in and understanding what what is this community about. So as a teacher, it's a little bit of homework of like, especially if you don't live in the community where you teach a really understanding, what is that community apart? What are the challenges that faces? You know, what are the people passionate about? What's the natural landscape? What's the industrial, industrial landscape? And it can even be about, you know, the school, if you want to go even smaller teachers are experts on the school where they work? And what are the challenges that our school has, what are the amazing things about our school and building curriculum into those pieces, too.

Julie Cunningham:

I'm guessing too, that that wouldn't lend support. If ever, if, as a teacher, you're looking for support from your community, right, and you choose to engage with the community. Now you probably have a little bit more parental support, who maybe you know, some of the parent works at the sugar factory, or works at the manufacturing plant, or is an expert at and is willing to lend their time or their expertise. So I think that getting engaged with the community also, it also supports the teacher and the school.

Jenn Kirts:

That's the beautiful thing about place based education is it's really, really authentic. And we take it from the nature part and go outside and experience real nature. But from the other ends of things, you know, when you have people who come in, and that is their job, and that's what they're passionate about. How awesome is that for the kids, instead of watching a PBS special on a manufacturing plant and all the math and stem that goes you know, into that, having someone come to the classroom and participate with that, in providing experience for the kids, that's incredibly powerful. So it's really about place based education is really about knowing what your resources are digging in and understanding. You know, what your community and your school is about and, and then figuring out how to put those pieces together. I'll always advocate for the nature end of it. But there's so many different ways to do

Ashley O'Neil:

You advocating for the nature end. I, we were talking to a teacher that we both really respect not that long ago, and she was talking about being kind of the importance of blurring the lines between school and just life and being a lifelong learner. And what better way, then if you start plugging your kids into places in your community, the grocery store, they always go to the plant that they always drive by on their way to school or on their way to grandma's house. Now suddenly, you're giving them these physical connecting points that have been outside of school that they then say, well, school is a part of my life. And I'm a part of the learning process. But it doesn't start at 810 and end at 317, or whatever it is, right? It happens constantly. And I just I really like that idea.

Jenn Kirts:

No, I love that connection that just builds a whole child. And that helps connect a whole community. And I think that's how we function and learn best.

Ashley O'Neil:

You have mentioned a lot of really great tangible examples. And I feel like as someone if I was back in the classroom tomorrow, I feel like you've given me some inspiration to get started. But are there any specific resources? I noticed by Nature Center is a phenomenal one. But outside of that, or even with that you can talk about that a little bit more. Are there any great resources that you would recommend for getting started?

Jenn Kirts:

I would, I would say chip on Nature Center, we would love to partner with teachers. And so whether that is just a brainstorm session with our naturalist and a call with a couple of questions, whether that's possibly doing field trips, and then sitting down with you afterwards and talking about what are the tips and tricks that we use to make it work. We build custom programs for teachers all the time, like if there's a topic they really want, we can do that. We also do teacher training. So if there's administrators that want grade levels or or schools to get involved with this, we can we can facilitate those trainings. There are a ton of resources out there. So if tipon Nature Center is not your local place, talk to your local place for nature based stuff. But school boards are a great resource. As far as looking for community members. Parents are a great resource. And then literally you can google place based education. And there are a million suggestions and lesson plans out there. One professional organization is called Mayo it's I'm going to get it wrong because there's a lot of balls. Michigan Alliance for environmental knowledge origin I think that the minute or but that is an organization designed both for Nature Center professionals and for teachers interested in environmental education. So they have a once a year conference and then they also do some trainings throughout the year. And then the DNR also Michigan DNR also hosts some trainings in the summertime that teachers can partake in to help with environmental education. So if this is your passion, those are two fantastic organizations, the dnrs summer programs, there's usually one at the Ralph Ralph e Macmillan center, just north of here and then every few years there's one in the up and the mayo conference are a great way to connect with like minded people. And then there's all sorts of educational sessions to dig into details and curriculum and experiences and Additional resources. So those are two, if it's environmental, to really great places that provides statewide support for place based on algorithm occation.

Julie Cunningham:

That's great. And we'll link to those in that for the podcast listeners will, will link to those in the transcript. Ashley, do you have any additional question? No,

Ashley O'Neil:

I was just gonna say I never, I never plug us because it just feels uncomfortable. And I'm not great at it. But I am proud and excited to say that Jen, and our space and the Nature Center are working together this year in a really cool and exciting way with this specific group of teachers, to bring them to the cheekbone Nature Center to work with your staff, and then to do some follow up experiences with them in our classroom. And I'll be helping to facilitate that. And I am excited to see where that goes. And hopefully, we'll be sharing some more information on our podcast about what those experiences are like from the teacher perspective. So we've got you kind of giving this broad overview of place based learning and we're hoping to get some information from the teachers and what it feels like on their end, to participate in this project based learning or place based learning.

Jenn Kirts:

Good, it has to work for everyone like it has to work for the teachers in the classroom, because because they are the ones that are building our students. And so I love being a resource and a supporter. But I'm always loved to hear perspectives about what works and what doesn't work in real life. It's easy to sit in an office and be like, Oh, this should be great. But you've got to do it on the ground. And it's got to work in real life.

Julie Cunningham:

Is there anything that you want to add today that we haven't asked you about anything,

Jenn Kirts:

as a professional, take care of yourself, spend time in nature yourself, it will help you be a happier, healthier person. So whatever your your outdoor space is, give that to yourself. And so I always remind people, it's free to come here to the Nature Center for local to you come do that. If not get to your backyard, get to a park, go for a walk on your sidewalk. And then just start learning your community. And if nature is a big part of what you're excited about, bring that into your students lives. I mean, whatever you're passionate about as a teacher, if you authentically bring that into your students lives, their learning is just going to expand.

Ashley O'Neil:

Well, Jen, wrap that up perfectly. We're just going to leave you with a reminder that references are in the show notes. transcripts are on the website. And we are now going to leave you with just a few sounds from the rest of our walk.