April 2014
Youth Matters

4-H Extension Corner: Connecting to Nature

 
Students at Prattville Primary are helping to plant their outdoor classroom’s butterfly garden.  

The Alabama Outdoor Classroom Program and 4-H help youth learn about the wonders of our natural world.

Many of us old folks remember spending time learning about the wonders of the natural world as we wandered through the woods, played in local streams, helped in the family garden or went hunting and fishing with a family member. We also remember our many collections of found objects and a table filled with canning jars that doubled as habitats for a variety of organisms. The great thing is that this type of behavior was encouraged and supported by our adult family members (or at least tolerated) most of the time.

Today, the vast majority of our youth (and even adults) spend little, if any, time enjoying and getting connected with nature. In fact, our youth are more likely to spend their time using technology to stay connected with friends and play games or in traveling from one scheduled activity to another, while seeing nature as a blur through the window of an automobile or as a show on television. Even though our lives have been made easier thanks to technology, at the same time, we have also become more disconnected from the natural world than at any other time, forgetting we still have a vital role in nature. Due to this change, our children and Alabama’s future risk being disconnected from nature and becoming ignorant regarding the importance of Alabama’s natural resources as well as our roles as environmental stewards. (A good book about this problem is titled "Last Child in the Woods:Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" by Richard Louv.)

4-H and Extension are aware of this problem and have been working to develop natural resource programming and partnerships with other organizations and agencies to help reconnect our youth to nature. One such partnership program is the Alabama Outdoor Classroom Program. The Alabama Wildlife Federation started developing the concept for a comprehensive outdoor classroom program in 1998 for K-12 public and private schools partly in response to a need voiced by many Alabama educators. After they piloted the program with 12 schools, they decided it was time to officially launch the AOC program in 2003 and bring aboard key partners (Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Discovering Alabama and the Alabama Forestry Commission).

Since then, Alabama 4-H/Extension has become an important partner on both the state and local levels in the AOC program. 4-H/Extension has supported local schools enrolled in the AOC program by helping to provide technical assistance and planning for their outdoor classrooms as well as educational resources, professional development training for educators and 4-H programming that complements the outdoor classroom concept. Some of what we have provided includes training and programming support in the 4-H Junior Master Gardener Program, and in natural resources through the Skins n’ Skulls Activity Module, the Classroom in the Forest Program, and 4-H Water Quality through the Alabama Water Watch. In addition, we are in the process of developing a new program titled the Alabama Junior Naturalist Program that will also provide a variety of natural resource, topic specific modules for use by trained 4-H agents and volunteers.

At the start of 2014, there were 300 K-12 public and private schools across Alabama enrolled in the Alabama Outdoor Classroom program (schools in 57 of Alabama’s 67 counties). These schools include both urban and rural settings. (See the AOC map athttp://www.alabamawildlife.org/classrooms/outdoor-classroom-map.php for information on some of the enrolled schools.) In addition, 47 of these schools have met the requirements to become Certified AOC Schools. To provide schools and educators with a variety of resources related to the AOC program, the AWF along with the assistance of 4-H/Extension have created and compiled a variety of outdoor classroom planning materials as well as activities and other resources on the AWF website at http://www.alabamawildlife.org/classrooms/which are available to anyone.

If a school is interested in participating in the AOC program, they must complete a registration form and include a one-time fee of $50 (enrollment information is found on the AWF website).Once the school is registered, it will be contacted by an AOC representative and also introduced to a local 4-H representative. The school’s staff will then be assisted in organizing an outdoor classroom committee and developing an outdoor classroom. Enrolled schools are also able to attend a variety of workshops, apply for grants and schedule school-based professional development workshops as well as get access to other resources. Once an enrolled school has established an outdoor classroom and completes all of the requirements to be a certified site, it is assisted in holding a dedication ceremony at which the school receives an Alabama Outdoor Classroom sign and is listed as a certified school site.

Through the development of an effective and sustainable outdoor classroom and the many educational resources provided through the AOC program, educators are able to provide their students with a variety of nature-based, hands-on, inquiry-based learning opportunities. In addition, as their outdoor classroom is planned and developed, schools can incorporate a variety of learning stations to help make this possible. Learning stations can include aquatic study areas (ponds and streams), woodland areas, nature trails, butterfly gardens, vegetable and flower gardens, amphitheaters, boardwalks, pavilions, pitcher plant bogs, decomposing log areas and many other nature-based ideas. Through these learning stations and their associated activities, youth are once again encouraged to wander the woods and fields, dig in the soil, roll over a log, wade in a stream and just reconnect with the natural world through interactive experiences. The overall goal is to bring youth and nature together in a natural environment conducive to learning about Alabama’s forest, wildlife and natural resources.

If you would like to learn more about the Alabama Outdoor Classroom Program, visit http://www.alabamawildlife.org/classrooms/ or contact me at 334-844-6398 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Doyle Keasal is an Environmental/Conservation Education Specialist with 4-H & Youth Development/Alabama Cooperative Extension System at Auburn University and with the Alabama Wildlife Federation.