July 26, 2017

Keeping Academic Skills Alive While in a Natural Setting

OUTDOOR CLASSROOM: These students from Trenton got to enjoy the outdoors while polishing their academic and leadership abilities during a week at Princeton-Blairstown Center’s Summer Bridge Academy. They are among 450 to experience nature and learning at the site this summer.

Learning tends to move outside during the summer months. At local nature preserves and green spaces, the outdoors become the classroom as students and teachers pursue everything from literacy and math to the wonders of the natural world.

At the Princeton-Blairstown Center, underserved youth from New York, Trenton, and Newark are strengthening their academic, social, and emotional skills as part of the Summer Bridge Program. At the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association in Pennington, 13 public and private school teachers from Central New Jersey recently had a three-day course in the impacts of human activities on the water cycle. And under the aegis of Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS), children from local schools and summer camps are studying plants and animals in Princeton parks and open spaces.

The outdoor education program being sponsored this summer by FOPOS comes courtesy of a $1,400 Franklin Parker Excellence Grant. The grant pays for equipment including microscopes, insect nets, and water quality testing kits. In the past month, FOPOS has hosted 36 children from the YMCA Outdoor Living Skills camp. Kids were taken on a guided hike through natural areas where they helped identify trees, wildlife, and edible wild berries.

“They also teach basic outdoor first air,” reads a press release from the organization. “FOPOS hopes to partner with many other school and children’s groups to continue its environmental education work with the new equipment.”

The grant is the third received by FOPOS under the Franklin Parker program, which is administered by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Previous grants were used for projects in the 400-acre Mountain Lakes Open Space Area surrounding Mountain Lakes House, which serves as FOPOS headquarters.

The middle and high school teachers at Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association spent three days learning to help align their curricula with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). They came from public school districts in Ewing, Hillsborough, Hopewell Valley, Somerset Hills, and West Windsor-Plainsboro; and from The Hun School of Princeton. The idea was to link concepts to the science standards, which focus on engaging students in studying real world problems and designing practical solutions.

“The teachers learned about the impacts of human activities on the water cycle, delving into both problems and solutions,” according to a statement from the Watershed Association. “They toured the rain garden, rain water harvesting system, and other ‘green’ features of the LEED-Platinum certified Watershed Center. Later, they hiked to the Stony Brook to take field measurements of macroinvertebrates and water chemistry.”

Designed to lessen summer learning loss and build leadership and social skills, the three-year-old Summer Bridge Program at the 87-year-old Princeton-Blairstown Center brings children to a 264-acre site in Blairstown for five days and four nights. They stay in camp-style cabins and divide their time among academics, waterfront activities, team-building, and problem-solving. Each of the sessions begins and ends with a campfire circle, and each student is sent home with a book of his or her choice.

The program has doubled in size since last year, and strengthened its academic components, including literacy and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). “What the kids are most excited about is learning,” said Pam Gregory, president and CEO of the Princeton-Blairstown Center. “In STEM, they were making strawberry DNA, which they loved. When you get kids excited about writing or science, you have left them with an impression that learning can be fun. And here, they’re doing it while being outside in nature.”

One of the key programs introduced this summer is the student’s choice hour, where children get to do the recreational activity they like best. “All research speaks to the fact that it is really important for kids to have choice, as well as structure,” Ms. Gregory commented.  “This year it includes things like dance, watercolors, and survival skills. They get to choose, and that means a lot to them.”