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Helping Students Love Messy, Beautiful Nature

On a damp and chilly morning, two dozen children follow Greg Petersen down a woodchip path toward a thick woods. He stops them by a fenced-in pond, just where the path leads into the woods like a tunnel, and quiets their chatter.

As their voices quiet down, others emerge from the trees: the songs of birds.

“Wait a minute, did you hear it?” he asks the bundled-up kindergartners. “The bird said ‘good morning.’ It’s the red-winged blackbird. He’s greeting you this morning.”

Students as Researchers

Greg Petersen’s E-lab students help monitor bird populations with two research projects. During winter they record how many and what kinds of birds frequent a nearby feeder, sending the results to Project FeederWatch, a continental survey operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. Petersen’s fifth-graders also walk the grounds of Blandford Nature Center and count bird sightings as part of the center’s land-management plan.

Then they begin what he calls “the silent journey” into the woods to learn its wonders and mysteries.

This is how Petersen teaches children about nature: by walking them into it, hearing it, smelling it, touching it. In so doing, the 27-year teaching veteran hopes to help them see they are connected to the natural world – indeed, are very much part of it – and that by so seeing, they may help save it.

Here at C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy on Grand Rapids’ Northwest Side, he has the ideal venue to do so. With the 143-acre Blandford Nature Center adjoining school property, Petersen has a realm teeming with life in which to immerse his environmental lab classes for students in grades K-5.

It is a calling he takes most seriously, but injects with laughter, song and the occasional British or Italian accent. Whether having kids dig into the soil, track bird sightings or fly-fish in the Rogue River, Petersen puts nature into the hands, eyes and ears of more than 150 city children each day.

“Do you hear all the birds?” he asks a troop of third-graders later in the morning. “Doesn’t that remind you of a song? ‘Whoa-oh, listen to the music …’”

Suddenly, the red-winged blackbirds are singing backup to the Doobie Brothers.

Aydin Kellogg, right, peers into a petri dish of soil held by Kai Crusen

Curbing Nature Deficit

The creativity of Petersen’s environmental teaching earlier this spring earned him an Excellence in Education Award from the Michigan Lottery. The weekly award brought $500 each to him and the school, an interview with MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo, and the possibility of a $10,000 prize as Michigan Educator of the Year to be selected from all the weekly winners.

Though not a basketball fan, Petersen enjoyed sharing stories of Izzo’s native Upper Peninsula. And he was especially honored by the fact he was nominated by parents, active volunteers in his “E-lab” class.

There, in a museum-like room crammed with nature’s specimens – a tortoise shell, a stuffed owl, antlers, a model human skeleton – Petersen puts students’ budding minds to work with a lively mix of science and play. The first time I met him, students were blowing bubbles on tables to test the properties of soap mixtures, while a turtle dove flew around the room and the Rolling Stones played on a boom box.

But all indoor lessons ultimately lead outdoors, the limitless classroom where students can record bird sightings and, in a favorite game, hide from Petersen like woodland creatures. Too many children suffer from “nature deficit,” he says, citing the term of author Richard Louv who links it to obesity and depression. Conversely, experiencing the outdoors can improve children’s concentration, coordination and imagination, Petersen contends.

“My bigger goal is to help these kids to fall in love with nature, so that when they grow up they’ll protect it, serve it, use it wisely,” he says. “A lot of what I’m doing is getting them outside to interact with nature, and see it as their friend, not an adversary.

“I want them to see that they are part of this, whether they know it or not.”

Drawing pictures of what various types of stone look like are, from left, third-graders Reese Hansen, Kya Knight and Evie Vandyke

While C.A. Frost has an environmental focus, other GRPS students are experiencing the great outdoors through a community partnership. The district teamed with Open Systems Technologies to send nearly 700 fifth-graders to the Lake Michigan shoreline this spring. Students from nine schools took 11 day-long field trips to either Hoffmaster State Park or Rosy Mound Natural Area.

The outings resulted from brainstorming between OST and GRPS officials about partnership projects. When it was mentioned that approximately 90 percent of GRPS elementary students have never seen the Big Lake, partly because of transportation and financial constraints, OST founder Dan Behm offered to support a series of trips so students could experience its beauty.

“Maybe this will inspire students in ways that they never imagined,” Behm said. “How can kids possibly understand the importance of green spaces if they can’t get outside the city and actually experience them in person?”

OST employees helped coordinate and chaperone the trips, which prompted praise from Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal. “This experience will leave a lasting impression on the lives of these children, and I am truly grateful that we have community partners like OST who step up to support our kids,” Neal said.

The Roots of a Calling  

Petersen has felt part of nature since he was a boy growing up in northern Kent County, where he often hunted and fished with his father, Edward. He knew he wanted to work outdoors with wildlife, he said, and majored in fisheries and wildlife management at Michigan State University. It was there, during an internship at Sarett Nature Center in Berrien County, that he learned he loved to “bring nature alive” for children.

He went on to work for the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, giving tours at the Seney National Wildlife Refuge and trapping cowbirds to protect the endangered Kirtland’s warbler. But an urge to stay put and raise a family combined with his interest in teaching led him to earn a teaching certificate at Calvin College.

‘My bigger goal is to help these kids to fall in love with nature, so that when they grow up they’ll protect it, serve it, use it wisely.’ – teacher Greg Petersen

In 1988 he began teaching in Grand Rapids Public Schools as a science specialist at Harrison Park School, then a math-science magnet, before moving 15 years ago to C.A. Frost. There he pairs with Mary Lewandowski, who teaches grades 6-9, to integrate science with nature studies in the E-lab taken by all students.

It’s the perfect place for a man who loves nature and teaching children – and is concerned about their future on a warming planet.

“I’m going to teach them about the beauty that’s in the world, and the incredible biodiversity that’s out there,” says Petersen, 55. “So they’ll notice when that changes and they’ll do something on their own, because they appreciate and love it so much.”

Messy, Beautiful

Back at E-lab, Petersen asks the kindergartners what dirt is and what lives in it. “It’s messy,” says a girl named Daisy. “Worms live in it,” says a boy. “Moles,” says another. Petersen writes down their answers, then tells them about some of the plants they’ll soon be growing in it.

“We’re going to go out and explore the world of dirt!” he announces. Then it’s out the door and into the woods. “Remember, you’ve got different senses you can explore the world with!” he reminds them.

They circle a white ash tree, patting its trunk, then start digging up dirt with trowels and peering at it in petri dishes through magnifying glasses. He asks them what it looks, smells and feels like. Smells like Play-Doh, one student says. “It looks like sand!” a girl pipes up. “It’s worm poop,” says a boy. “In science, we don’t say poop, we say scat,” Petersen corrects, and writes it down.

As they troop excitedly back into school, Petersen holds the door open and says “Hello, little birds,” in his best Monty Python accent.

Next come 27 third-graders for a lesson on rocks, their varieties and uses in nature. “Science is all about asking questions, and then looking for the answers,” he tells them. “That’s really what life is about, isn’t it?”

Before taking them outside, he reminds them of the E-lab promise: “I will respect nature, and I will leave it alone.” In other words, no rocks put in pockets.

Students peer through lenses at the sidewalk, asphalt and brick outside and make drawings of what they see. “Oh, it’s beautiful!” a girl exclaims.

Parent volunteer Michelle Jespersen looks on with a smile. Her children Charlie, Sarah and Emily have all had Petersen.

“He’s just so engaging,” she marvels. “I mean, the guy’s talking about rocks, right? But you get kind of excited: ‘Oh, that’s a cool rock!’ He has a love of nature that just comes out.”

Petersen wants his students to love nature too. He’s convinced it will enhance their lives and benefit the planet.

“That’s my hope,” he says, “that these kids getting out in nature doesn’t just change them – it changes the world.”


Michigan Lottery Excellence in Education Award

Children and Nature Network

Last Child in the Woods

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Blandford Nature Center

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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