The natural classroom: Summer programs put biology in kids’ hands
Children benefit from a balanced diet of screen time and outdoors time, studies show.
In the St. Louis area, several camps and summer youth jobs focus on environmental education and exploration. St. Louis Public Radio visited a smattering of them to see what kids are learning.
A classroom without walls
Katie Dreas, above, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, leads fourth- and fifth-graders from the Ferguson-Florissant School District on a hike through the Little Creek Nature Area in Florissant. The camp is in its second year and teaches 135 students over three weeks.
De’Jah Robinson, 10, above, cracks open a persimmon fruit to see what’s inside. “It was, like, smooshy and it stinked a lot,” she said. “And on the inside it looked like a grape."
Nature advocacy groups and the U.S. Department of Agriculture say children today spend half as much time outdoors as their parents did. There’s a growing list of research showing that time spent outdoors improves a child’s mood, emotional capacity and critical thinking.
“Being outside, there’s so many more questions to ask, the mind is able to really grow and expand,” Little Creek Nature Area coordinator Eric Hadley said.
10-year-old Cody Wills, center, inspects tree bark at the Little Creek Nature Area. The camp is free for district students but there’s a waiting list.
Forest Park's educational features
Vera Froderman, above, from St. Louis, smells a plant while sitting beside a pond in Forest Park. Campers do a mix of science and art projects — along with searching for critters.
“Our greatest teacher is nature,” Forest Park Forever education coordinator Jean Turney said. She also brings teachers to the park to learn how to use it for field trips or incorporate nature into lesson plans.
Zathan Barton, from St. Louis, above, observes a group of ducks during Forest Park Forever’s Summer Youth Experience.
Fellow camper Ronald Williams, 9, said learning about plants and animals in a park is better than being in the classroom “because, like, you gotta stay in the building, you can’t really explore the nature; you just get to know about it.”
Micheal Flemon, 17, attends Normandy High School. This summer, he’s earning a paycheck with Forest Park Forever’s Nature Works program, which functions as a landscaping job and a biology lab for high schoolers.
Miranda Tze, center, 17, goes to Parkway South High School and wants to be a molecular biologist. The manual labor is giving her a new appreciation for parks. “You’re walking through parks and I don’t think you realize the effort that people put in not only to make it beautiful, but also healthy,” she said.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney