The Suitcase Lady


June 5, 2018, 10:27 pm

My local school district is one of the poorest in the state. But we are rich in outstanding educators plus one huge physical asset. We have a school forest.

Given as a gift in 1955 by a wealthy family, the Rahr Memorial School Forest now consists of almost 300 acres along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The land includes mixed forests, pines, sand dunes, fields, a swamp, a pond and a rocky, fossil-strewn beach. In other words, it’s an incredible treasure. All students in our district from kindergarten through senior high visit frequently for environmental education.

That is how I found myself on a school bus last week with 50 first graders, their teachers plus several volunteers like myself. I am happy to report that our kids do not have nature deficit disorder. On the contrary, they were all overjoyed to be going back to “their” forest.

Arriving at the woods, we broke up into three groups and began a round robin of three carefully planned activities. My group started by solving a nature mystery presented by the school forest coordinator. “Who do you think made the strange designs in these pieces of wood I found in our forest?”, she asked while passing out the wood and large magnifying glasses. After observation, the kids presented their hypothesizes. Several students guessed “insects” which turned out to be correct. Our teacher then explained the life cycle of the engraver beetle.

Next, one of our first grade teachers began her presentation by dividing the kids into small groups and giving each group a hula hoop. They were told to put the hoop down on a spot of sandy soil at the forest edge and search for bugs and other creepy crawlies in their circle. The kids loved this arthropod treasure hunt and shrieked with joy whenever they unearthed June bugs or other specimens. They could view and share their finds by putting them in clear plastic jars with magnifying glass lids. At the end of the session, all the creatures were released.

The last adventure was in a pine and hemlock forest where all the fallen trees and leaf litter is left to decompose. The children each got a plastic spoon and were instructed to GENTLY dig in the rotting logs and leaves to discover who lived there. And here is where one student found the best discovery of the day, a beautiful, little, three inch long salamander.

All this focused observation and field work culminated with play time in a gigantic sand dune, literally a bowl of sand near the lake. The exuberant kids would have stayed there happily until nightfall.

At the end of this day, I had only one thought…..if only every child in America could have a school forest or nature center like ours and dynamic teachers to interpret it.

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