Schools make ecology lesson a natural experience

THE OBSERVER

July 05, 1992|By Mark Guidera

Under a cathedral of trees in the arboreal deep, a somewhat exasperated 11-year-old named Tony is looking for life in a stream.

Tony is persistent with his net as he looks for fish and snails and crawfish and all manner of other creepy crawly things, but he isn't much good at this.

It is, after all, one of his very first experiences loose in a place not hemmed in by concrete.

Despite his poor luck, there are timeless lessons here in the shady woodland realm for the Halls Crossroads Elementary student as he patiently wades Plumtree Run, which courses through Harford Glen Environmental Education Center in Abingdon.

Lesson No. 1: The life in the stream -- the crawfish, the finger-sized fish, and even the spider-like water striders -- have a wisdom all their own.

To wit: The crawfish know something about camouflage, for they are hard to tell from the stream's copper-colored rocks; the fish, hiding in pools along the banks, are experts at protection; and the water striders dart from danger at the very twitch of Tony's foot.

Lesson No. 2: Respect and protect the wisdom of nature.

"The birds and other wildlife impress us just by being themselves," says Michael Seymour, one of the teachers for the program last week. He was leading a group of first-, second- and third-graders to the water's edge.

"Some of these kids have never been in a forest before. It was a whole new world for them. For some there was fear, but also there was awe. The minute they walked into the woods, you could just see their amazement.

"What we want them to do is to experience nature as something real in their lives -- seeing how birds can fly very fast through the trees or the beauty of their songs. It's no longer something they see on TV. Hopefully, they'll understand why they should protect it rather than being destroyers of it."

It is this lesson of being protectors rather than apathetic or intentional destroyers of the natural world which Harford's public school system is passing on very well indeed these days.

It's a lesson, of course, that we as humans are groping to teach and to learn globally right now.

But here at home, at least within the public school system, a purposeful effort is afoot to teach children, beginning as early as first grade, about the natural world and their inter-connection with it.

Harford Glen, a woodsy paradise with a marshy pond and a plethora of wildlife, from blue herons to beavers, has emerged as the focal point in the public school system's environmental education effort.

Annually, more than 12,000 of the 31,000 public school students visit Harford Glen for a taste of nature. That number will increase in the near future as more programs are added at the center and more students enter the county's ballooning public school system. Thankfully, county educators have seen past the folly of running kids through an outdoor classroom in the blind hope the students would suddenly be instilled with an appreciation and interest in nature's grandeur.

These days, students who begin and end their pre-college education in the county school system will have some type of environmentally or ecologically oriented science education throughout their school years. And they either will return to Harford Glen periodically or be schooled in nature's ways at other emerging outdoor classrooms in the county, such as Otter Point Creek's wildlife conservancy and the Eden Mill Nature Center near Deer Creek.

The high hope of county environmental education teachers, such as Dennis Kirkwood, the teacher-in-charge of environmental education at Harford Glen, is that a seed of empathy and respect for nature will be planted within the young hearts and minds in the county's schools.

"After you work with these kids for a while, you know that the way we are going to break the pattern of thinking we are separate from nature rather than a part of it is to plant the seed of empathy.

"It's critical that people have repetitive experiences with nature. The one-time shot is not enough," says Kirkwood, flush with the excitement of having shown last week's group the magic of life's web and their place in it by wading in a quiet stream in the woods.

There was a sense as the students headed back through the woods afterward that a light had clicked on in some of the minds. "I'm glad we let the fish we caught go," said one brown-eyed youth wearing pink socks and shoes.

Me, too.

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