Outdoor education according to fourth-graders

From left, Eric Pierce, Sam Newell, Xavier Rea and Alessandra Carranco stand on a bridge in the wetlands

Countryside Elementary School fourth-grade classmates Noah Kettlewell, Matthew Hager and Casey Rousch know what you can eat to survive in the wetlands.

“You can eat the cattails, the entire dandelion, onion grass… Casey found there was edible bark out there. You can eat frogs,” Noah said.

Claire Rysdyk points out a tree that produces a cottony substance

While that menu may be a bit too earthy for most, students who explore a trail through wetlands behind the schoolyard will learn these facts and more. The trio’s laminated poster, titled “Edible Stuff in Wetlands,” is now inside one of several informational display cases dotting the property.

Other student groups in teacher Dan Volkers’ class created posters on topics related to wetlands exploration, including identifying trees by their leaves, animal tracks, erosion and the history of Sharp’s Creek, which runs through the area.

The posters are part of the class’ fourth-grade legacy as they move on to fifth grade at Nickels Intermediate School. When Countryside students use the winding trail and explore the thickets, apple trees and various flora and fauna, they now have fact-filled stopping points at the wooden cases.

Matthew Hager picks a dandelion

“Our goals as fourth-graders was being able to teach future students something in that area when they walk through the wetlands,” Volkers said.

Lucy Marczuk shared a tidbit she learned in preparing a poster with group members Laila McDowell and Katelyn Leifer. “Doe tracks are different than buck tracks; one is smaller and one is also wider,” Lucy said.

Claire Rysdyk studied tree identification with Brielle Lefebre, Madelyn Powell and Delilah Martin.

“There are trees that produce cotton and (the leaves) looks like a mascara brush,” she said.

Students joined Volkers in placing the posters in the boxes, a project that spurred a host of new questions. Hundreds of small ants were using the boxes to lay eggs. “This is a research project. We’ve got to figure out why they do this,” Volkers told the class as he wiped away ants.

Savannah Fitzpatrick identifies deer tracks

Taking Learning to the Trail

While outside, students noticed rabbit and deer tracks in the mud, snails and a toad. They grabbed sticks and played along the creek’s edge. The area provides ample opportunities for the kind of experiences Volkers said he loves for his students. As well as science, he often connects reading to outdoor learning, “Remember in ‘My Side of the Mountain’ (the main character) was eating the roots — the tubers from the cattails?” he asked students as they looked at cattails. His students also brainstorm ideas for narrative stories while walking the trails.

“Learning outside is a whole different feeling,” Volkers said, “It’s a lot easier to connect to things you can see and touch.”

Countryside and district staff members started creating the trail, set on the more than 20-acre property, about five years ago for outdoor learning experiences. Along with the display cases, they’ve added three bridges and birdhouses, benches and are caring for apple trees. They plan to add an outdoor learning facility this summer.

Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese 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 and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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