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"How Do I Reach These Kids?"

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a break from our regularly-scheduled botany nerd blog posts and dust off my old psychology diploma. We just had a fascinating experience last month on the environmental education front, and it seems like a good opportunity to explain an exciting new concept in environmental education. In the fall of 2020, a gentlemen named Jay Gorsh from the University of Iowa reached out to us to see if we’d be interested in hosting a “school of the wild” in Clayton County. He gave us the elevator pitch and we agreed to look into it a little more with a more formal meeting. School of the wild started with Iowa City schools many years ago. The basic premise is simple: school, but outside. Students will get all of their curriculum – math, science, art, the works – but integrated with experiences and interactions with the natural world. On the heels of a successful and sustainable program in Iowa City, Jay took the reins 6 years ago and has started working to expand the idea statewide. During the meeting we talked about which schools might jump at the opportunity, and where to hold the actual “school.” In the fall of 2020 - outdoor learning was a particularly easy sell at the time - we got MFL MarMac on board, and we had the entire fifth grade class of Bulldogs descend upon Bloody Run County Park for an amazing September week.

Budding foresters at Bloody Run

The next spring, Starmont students got to spend a week exploring the wonders at Backbone state park, kayaking the lake (brr!), talking geology and archaeology, fishing, and exploring the prairie. Students journaled about their experiences, sketched, had an impromptu talk from some actual archaeologists working on the site (timing is everything), and lamented going “back to regular school.”

Starmont students exploring "karst topography"

During the last week in September 2022, the combined might of naturalists from Winneshiek, Clayton, Fayette, and Allamakee counties – with a whole lot of help from the teachers - led the “school” for Postville 4th graders at Osborne, Gilbertson in Fayette county, and Luther College in Decorah.

Postville comparing the root length of prairie plants

One of the core tenets of school of the wild, and the paradigm-shifting element in my mind, is that every day will have a specific topic. In other words, rather than the more scatter-shot approach we often take with field trips, the students will really do a deep dive into forestry, or fisheries, or geology, or whatever's pertinent for their classroom goals.

Learning about sustainable energy in Decorah

They’ll explore the topic from all angles, since it’s really just a vehicle for their regular curriculum. They don’t just ID trees on their forestry day, they learn about the history of logging in Iowa (social studies). They record data on the number and size of different species, and plot that data on a graph (math). They write an acrostic about their favorite tree of the day (writing).

Now that we’ve hosted a few of these week-long adventures, I think it’s time to share a few important observations. 1) Kids have a much, much greater attention span than we think. The transformation, even from the beginning to the end of the day has boggled my mind during all three schools. Often, a field trip is outlined to jump from one topic to another. They’ll talk about animals, go on a nature hike, explore the pioneer village, etc. Time crunches often make this a pretty abrupt transition. So my first inclination, when Jay was laying out the approach, was that I’d have a hard time keeping them focused on a given subject for an entire day. The Postville teachers requested a day on erosion control. Gulp. I thought there’s no way I can fill a whole day talking about it, let alone keeping their minds off of Yu-Gi-Oh cards and Fortnite for several hours. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

One visit to the prairie and the plant blindness is gone

At the start of the day, many students couldn’t even offer a definition of erosion. By the end of the day, they were asking me genuinely smart questions about whether an (in their minds) entirely hypothetical practice could work to improve soil and hold it in place. In many cases, they actually stumbled upon the exact sort of best practices we learn about in professional seminars and conferences from hoity-toity academic types. Case in point: I had the students examining soil samples from three different areas: a mowed lawn, a recently-reconstructed prairie, and a remnant prairie. As they excitedly waved their magnifying glasses over each little speck, I tried to explain why certain soils have more “living things,” and how in many cases those living things have been destroyed by repeated tilling or compaction so the soil couldn't hold as much water.

The devil's in the dirt-tails.

One kid who I didn’t think cared much for the activity, without looking up from his dirt, barked out a question. “What if you took the good soil, and like, mixed it in with the bad soil?” He had unwittingly stumbled upon the concept of soil inoculation, a bourgeoning wing of restoration science. Another kid, after seeing the classic comparison of Iowa’s historic prairie cover vs. modern land use practices, offered a humble proposal.

“Well, we can’t just get rid of all the farmland. But what if you just took some spots and said ‘this is going to be prairie,’ and over here you said ‘that’ll be forest,’ and…”

"Yeah! Like that!"

I flipped over the image in my hand to reveal our stand map at Osborne, laid out in exactly the way he described. He made my segue for me. After lunch, we went for a hike, and the kids were asking about the root depth of various prairie species, requesting species ID’s, and generally staying on topic until the bus rolled in to drive them home.

Not only did we fill a whole day talking about erosion control with kids who hadn’t heard of erosion, but if anything I’d have needed a whole second day to actually dig in to all their excellent questions. Which leads me to my next observation… 2) Kids need more time to process than we generally give them.

As county naturalists, we spend a lot of time going into classrooms for 30-60 minutes at a time. At the end of our lesson, the teacher will often say something to the tune of “Okay! Get out your math books, we’re gonna do [insert form of math I can no longer remember how to do].” Most of this is just a practical limitation. The kids need routine, the teachers need to stay on schedule, and we’ve got to spread the love around to a lot of different schools in a limited amount of time. But during school of the wild, I’m noticing that it often takes a full half an hour just to get the kids in the headspace. Once they get there, they stay there, but it takes time. It takes a few different activities to engage all the learning styles, and to establish a framework for how they should be observing the things around them to really explore the topic.

Visualizing five tons of topsoil

However, allowing this time for them to process, to ask questions, and to find their own way to interpret their observations all leads to much “stickier” information to use the cognitive science terminology.

Case in point vol. 2: the MFL MarMac students could scarcely tell an oak tree from a maple tree to start their forestry day. Some of them knew a maple leaf thanks to Canada, but beyond that? Forget it. One of their activities involved giving pairs of students a tree species, and working with them to understand the identifying characteristics. Fast forward to spring of 2021, six months after School of the Wild, and I’m back at MFL MarMac geocaching in the woods behind the middle school for their P.E. class. I’m helping a group of students find their cache, when one of the boys looks at the trunk of a tree and says “white oak.” I was floored. The kid wasn’t even looking up into the canopy, but he’d correctly ID’d a white oak based on the bark alone. “Whoa, how’d you know that? Are you from a logging family?” He looked at me like I had three heads. “Uh, we did this thing last year? Called School of the Wild?” Now, it’s not that I’d forgotten about their week in the wild. It’s the fact that typically, when I head into a classroom, my icebreaker question is asking if they remember what I’d talked about during my last visit. “Something about… animals, I think? You brought a rope, maybe?” In other words, not so sticky. I think I always chalked it up to kids being kids. I’m plenty absent-minded now as an adult, and my parents could tell you some horror stories about my critical thinking and reasoning skills as an elementary school student… and a middle school student… and high schooler… and college student... But it wasn't the kids. I have always struggled to accurately guess a given age groups’ base knowledge. It’s likely that often I failed to “stick” in their minds because I wasn’t attaching my content to anything they could attach to their experience, which brings me to my last observation.

That'll stick.

3) Teachers are irreplaceable. For these first school of the wild experiences, naturalists led most of the activities. The idea is to let the teachers observe first; we work in these parks, we work in this field, we know the content backwards and forwards.

But we don’t know the kids.

Games always break the ice, though

With the Postville students, the teacher who “shadowed” me kept apologizing for interrupting, but in reality I couldn’t have successfully gotten anything through to them without her. Students are shy. Even the boisterous ones. They’re not very quick to tell me if I’m using a word they don’t understand.

But the teacher knows where the scaffolding has been built, and where I’m operating without a safety net. She could jump in and say “Hold on. Does everyone know what he means when he says ____?”

She knew which kids grew up on a farm, which ones had parents who worked in construction or excavation, which ones would be the flower children and which ones would need a little more accommodation to feel comfortable in this setting.

If I tried to explain a concept – like drain tiling or sediment retention ponds – she could immediately tie it into an actual observation from their previous class work. Failing that, she could immediately lay down an analogy to something they’d understand (“the rocks work like a pasta strainer”). I think, to this point in my career, I’d failed to realize just how inherently guarded kids are when I visit their classroom or lead a field trip activity. They don’t know me. They’re scared to answer a question. They’re scared to ask a question – after all, what if I’m super mean? They just don't know how to interact with me.

Also not sure how to interact with a mantis

By the end of the day the students and I have certainly built more of a rapport, but it’s greatly expedited by their teacher bridging that trust gap. To start the day, they’ll whisper their question into the teachers’ ear so she can ask me for them. By the end of the day, they’re tugging on my shirt with a question and running back to the teacher to share their brand-new factoid. Much, much ink has been spilled trying to find a way to combat what so many people perceive to be a growing disconnect between children and nature. I think these three observations give reason to question some of the dogma around environmental education.

A lot of educators and conservationists preach the value in just letting kids explore outside. After all, many of us grew up flipping rocks in streams or tearing up logs to see what’s inside and that's why we do what we do today. Since that worked for us, it must be the key to creating a new generation of environmentally-conscious citizens.

But that’s selection bias at work. Plenty of kids did not grow up doing those things, even before screens and sports and social media wormed their way into the pile of childhood distractions. They might not like doing those things. Those are the kids we really need to reach to raise our baseline environmental literacy.

Of course, some experiences just can't be taught

While exploration-based learning certainly has its place, kids really do thrive with some structure. They want to learn things. They’re capable of absorbing much more complicated information than we often expect, But without context, they don’t learn much more than their simple observations. By connecting those observations to higher-level concepts, we make them “stick” much better.

Sometimes the distractions just distract too hard

Moreover, that style of learning doesn’t address my (admittedly unscientific) observation that kids need a whole lot more time with a subject to really internalize it. Poking around in a wetland they see a whole bunch of cool stuff, sure, but it’s flashing in and out of their consciousness so quickly that they never connect deeply with it intellectually, let alone emotionally – which any psychologist will tell you is the key to lasting memories.

Lastly, these observations show me that no matter how engaging I make a program, I’ll never hold a candle to the people in a kids’ life that they know and trust. A teacher can be anyone, but kids won’t trust just any old so-and-so who gets in front of them and starts talking.

That creates both an opportunity, and an obligation. I went to nature camps growing up, led by counselors I didn’t know. I had classroom visits from naturalists. I went on field trips.

But I scarcely remember anything I learned in those experiences. I remember Mr. Langtimm, my sixth grade science teacher, who would look at whichever Animorphs book I was reading and provide some supplemental non-fiction based on the animal on the cover.

A flashback for all the millennials out there.

I remember Mrs. Moritz, my high school anatomy teacher, who knew I liked running and used it wherever she could to help things "stick" in my mind. I still know the calf muscle is called the gastrocnemius. I remember backyard campouts with my dad, where we’d lay and look up at the canopy of trees and he’d tell me about how they were competing for sunlight and soil. I remember catching fish with him on the river, and absent a field guide or Google, just trusting that I’d caught a Sauger because he said so.

Allamakee's Ross Geerdes introducing the humble crawdad

In other words, for parents and teachers wanting to foster genuine environmental curiosity in today’s youth, there’s no outsourcing, and there’s no shortcuts. The same goes for environmental educators – we can’t just dust our hands and say “job well done” because we spent thirty minutes on a lesson in their classroom.

We have to put in the work too, to develop a trusting relationship with both the students and the teachers. We can’t force this stuff into kids’ heads, they have to let it in. It’s not enough to know the content, we have to know the audience, too. We have to know it beyond age groups and curriculum goals. We have to know who they are as people, as individuals, with different concerns and experiences and desires. School of the wild allows for those relationships to form in a way that few other environmental education programs have achieved. The kids learned a lot. But we learned a lot too. The kids got into the grainy details of their subject-du-jour, and we got into the grainy details of their lives and minds. Going forward, both of us will be operating from a place of better mutual understanding. To me, that’s a complete game-changer, and I’m grateful for the schools’ trust, the students’ curiosity, and Jay Gorsh’s excellent idea.

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