Teaching a Kindergarten Class in the Great Outdoors

How many children get to say that they spent the morning not only in the great outdoors, but doing their part to help wildlife as well? One perfectly sunny, but breezy day in May, my kindergarten class at P.S. 197 in Brooklyn, NY brought the native plants that we had been growing in our classroom to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, part of the National Park Service’s Gateway National Recreation Area, to provide nourishment for monarch butterflies, bees, and other pollinators.

kids and nature
Student carrying a seedling to plant. Photo by Teri Brennan
We had grown the plants from seed that we collected at the Refuge back in October. It was the latest chapter of our year-long Growing a Wild Brooklyn and Queens program, which includes 12 other participating NWF Eco-Schools. In addition to getting the children – and their parents – outside for a second trip to the Refuge, the program gave me the impetus to get the children outside a couple of more times to plant wildflowers in our own pollinator garden at our school.

At Jamaica Bay, we had our own little polygon plot — actually two — where we planted evening primrose and other native plants. Michelle Luebke, an education specialist at Gateway who had cleared the area from the invasive plants that were growing there, showed us the layout and set us to work. Grown-ups and children split up into two groups. We worked cooperatively – always a nice lesson to learn in kindergarten! Parents dug holes. Little hands planted seedlings. We were all very careful about where we stepped.

gardening kids
Helping students dig holes to plant their seedlings. Photo by Teri Brennan
The restorative benefits of being outside are well known, but it is also true that the outdoors can be a great classroom. After planting, NPS Ranger Dan Meharg seized on my kindergarteners’ excess energy and took them on a hike through the Refuge. He pointed out all kinds of plants, including milkweed, poison ivy and beach plum, as well as birds such as osprey, tree swallows and a red-winged blackbird.

Dan helped the children hone their observation skills as he pointed out similarities and differences among different plant and animal species. Will they remember how to identify these species by the time they get to first grade? Maybe or maybe not. But Dan emphasized the greater lesson of looking closely, a skill my students will need for the rest of their lives.

kids and nature
Students enjoy exploring and interacting with nature. Photo by Teri Brennan
Our group also got a mini-history and politics lesson as we stood before a former freshwater pond while Dan described the damage that Hurricane Sandy caused to Jamaica Bay. The destructive hurricane breached a sand barrier and flooded the pond with salt water. Government officials are still trying to figure out whether it should be restored. Abstract concepts for little people and big people alike are much more meaningful when witnessed first-hand. We did not walk away with answers, but we understood.

P.S. 197, Brooklyn
Mina, her kindergarten class, and their helpers including Michelle Luebke (4th from right) and Ranger Dan Meharg (2nd from right). Photo by Teri Brennan
To be honest, there is another lingering lesson that I hope my little kindergarteners will carry with them throughout their lives: the lesson that we can all make a difference in our corner of the earth. The issues our world is facing can be quite discouraging at times. There is so much that is out of our control – conflict, wars, disease, greedy corporations. However, no matter how small we are, we can do some good where we are, even if it is for creatures smaller than us, like butterflies and bumble bees.  We can make our little polygon plot a better place to be.

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Mina Campanie, NYC Eco-Schools TeacherAbout the Author: Mina Campanie is in her fourth year of teaching as a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 197, The Kings Highway Academy in Brooklyn, NY.  She sees many similarities between caring for her seedlings at home and nurturing the kindergarteners at school. This is her second guest blog for National Wildlife Federation. Read her first blog, Kindergarteners Help Grow a Wild Brooklyn.