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Hands-on Science Just Outside the Door: Students Explore New Learning Center

Blandford Nature Center Lends a Hand

Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center first-grader Shaby Pablo-Pablo was on the lookout for an American goldfinch’s habitat. He spied it up in a tree.

Peyton Hudson shows plants she found outside
Peyton Hudson shows plants she found outside

“Shaby’s bird’s nest is right by us!” said Janet Staal, environmental education consultant for Blandford Nature Center. Sure enough, a small, cone-shaped nest sat amid branches. While scanning the trees, students spotted another nest. And a hole. And another hole.

Soon it was clear: animals were living all around them.

Students explored Godfrey-Lee Public School’s new outdoor education space, dubbed Happy Hollow Living Learning Space, for food, shelter and evidence of the animals they pretended to be: red foxes, woodpeckers, fox squirrels, voles, Cooper’s hawks and eastern cottontail rabbits. It was a lesson on animal adaptation with Staal, who is visiting the class three times for outdoor learning opportunities. The class will also take a field trip to Blandford Nature Center.

“Look for clues that the animal has been here,” Staal told students as the group traipsed through the snow to the woodsy area. The students were looking for evidence that animals could survive in the area.

A student discovers a hole

“Guys, look at what I found over here,” said first-grader Freddy Martinez-Molena, as he poked a stick down a hole, a possible fox home.

Nature-Based Education

The partnership with Blandford, the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit organization, is one way teachers are coming up with ideas to use the half-mile stretch along Plaster Creek abutting the ECC to incorporate nature into all subjects and to expose students to biodiversity and the need for preservation. They have placed stumps and built forts to create natural learning spaces, and planted many species of wildflower seeds ready to bloom this spring.

Forts are perfect for exploring and becoming part of wildlife

Staal has also led ECC teachers in training sessions on nature-based education, focusing on how to use the natural environment as part of science inquiry and authentic outdoor learning.

“It really does get them excited about learning,” said first-grade teacher Nancy Stefano. Many of the students don’t spend a lot of time exploring outdoors and don’t see wildlife often. When they do, they thrive, she said. They also spent time snowshoeing through the area.

Students explored on their own in the woods, stopping to check out forts, pick up branches and examine seeds.

Staal said getting students’ imaginations churning and engaging them in physical activity helps them learn and have fun while doing so.

Stumps are the outdoor learning classroom seats
Stumps are the outdoor learning classroom seats

“I eat apples. I need to find apples to eat,” said Adilene Lopez, who pretended to be a red squirrel.

While apples weren’t aplenty on the February day, students did find a goldenrod plant perfect for finches, and grass and plants rabbits would munch. They found their water source in the flowing creek and many things they can now identify in their own backyards.

Shouted first-grader Jenna Sivens: “I could try to find acorns!”


SNN article on Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Outdoor Learning Lab

Blandford Nature Center Environmental Education Consulting

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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