Every July I look forward to Academy360 Lower School’s middle school students and staff of returning to the Essex County Environmental Center in Roseland, NJ.  They visit as part of their Extended School Year program, and this was our ninth year together experiencing the natural environment in our wetland forest.  There are several different classes which visit twice a week, and each group spends four one and a half hour sessions discovering our many theme-related programs.  Each year we focus on a different topic related to the environment.

Searching for frogs!

This year’s theme was the about the deciduous forest. The first week everyone learned what deciduous forest is. We walked outside to observe the four forest layers – the canopy, the second story, the shrub and ground layer, and the basement. Feeding worms to the box turtle was a big hit and a great way to learn about the natural food chain.

During the second week, binoculars helped us to observe animals living in the forest. It took a lot of patience since most of them were hidden.  Animal pelts, however, provided a wonderful hands-on experience!  The students loved the sensory experience of touching the pelts of the various forest dwellers.

We caught one!

In week three, we used magnifiers and located a number of creepy crawlies, mini-beasts and butterflies.  The butterfly tent, the live walking stick, and capturing and releasing the frogs in the frog pond were by far the favorite activities of both students and staff.

We ended our classes in the last session with the learning about the forest after dark.  Owls were the focus in week four. The sounds and pictures of the owls were of great interest, and the dissection of sanitized owl pellets was quite the sensory experience.

Nature has a very soothing effect, and the students were engaged and relaxed on our walks. When we went on our forest strolls, it was exciting to the have students and staff discover things that I did not point out.  They were filled with questions on all topics, from why the frogs had unusual markings to what animals lived in the river.  Simple projects and handouts were sent home but the focus was on group and individual discovery of the natural environment. Students made many surprising observations in the deciduous forest without having to read a book or watch a movie.  Nature was the teacher, and she was a great one!

When Academy360 Lower School students return next July, I’ll be waiting to help them discover a new hands-on nature theme.

Barbara Pilipie has been teaching nature programs at the Essex County Environmental Center for over eight years. With a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts degrees in Early Childhood Education, her primary focus has been on programming for the Little Explorer programs for two to five-year-olds.  She believes nature should be an integral part of everyone’s life.  It’s the children who help bring the parents back to the simple life.  As a Rutgers’ Master Gardener,  Barbara also organizes horticultural programs for children through adults.