Teacher Uses Nature to Engage Young Students

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Preschool Yard with view of the Mud Kitchen and Climbing Tree
Preschool Yard with view of the Mud Kitchen and Climbing Tree

Five-year-old Lila offered to give me a tour of her school yard at Boston Nature Center Pathways to Nature Preschool. “This is our garden,” she said, taking my hand. “And this is the Mud Kitchen.” Then she squatted down next to a clump of plants on the edge of the walkway, pointing to a large leaf belonging to a plant that I, but not too many other people, know how to identify. “This is burdock,” she said, correctly. “And that over there is stinging nettle—don’t touch it.” I was delighted. These were plants that I had taught her teacher, Hilary Johansen-Silve (’12), to identify when she was my student at Wheelock College five years ago. As a biology teacher of many future teachers, I knew theoretically that what I introduce might be passed down to the next generation, but I’d never seen it in action before.

“What’s this one?” I asked pointing to a plant I knew must be a kind of mint because of the square-shaped stem, but couldn’t name. “Oh,” she said. “That’s creeping Charlie.” So, I learned something from my grand-student. I could not have been more proud.

Other children joined in, showing me the climbing tree adorned with vines for swinging, and the stream that marks the far boundary of their play yard and leads to trails around the property and to a nature center, public gardens, and larger natural playground which we would visit later that day.

Hilary teaching students
Hilary teaching

Hilary has been a teacher at the Boston Nature Center for three years. (Read Hilary’s blog post about her work.) When she invited me to come visit her classroom, I was very much looking forward to it. Though I frequently visit and occasional teach at other Mass Audubon Sanctuaries, I’d never had the opportunity to visit Boston Nature Center. My expectations were low; I didn’t expect much from a nature center in the middle of the city. So I was happily surprised to see the grounds—the woods, the gardens, the field, and the play areas for children. While on the pathway to the nature center, I had a moment of feeling as though I could have been on the Cape. It is a beautiful place, a gem in the city.

I knew the formal lesson would be excellent. Hilary taught a wonderfully designed hands-on lesson on bird beaks, and how form fits function. The kids were completely focused and engaged. Around the room, there were nature-related posters —most made by the children—that I wanted to wander around and read. One titled “Fungus Tasting” showed a chart of many kids trying each of a number of store-bought mushrooms, such as portobello and shiitake—and there were many marks in the “yes” section, indicating a child liked that one. “If you call them fungus, the kids try them,” Hilary explained. Why didn’t I think of that when my daughter was that age?

Sara Levine reading her book "Tooth by Tooth" at The Mass Audubon Boston Nature Center
Sara Levine reading her book “Tooth by Tooth” at The Mass Audubon Boston Nature Center

Following the formal lesson, we walked the trails through the woods to an amphitheater where I was invited to share one of my books with the kids. Then, there was an abundance of time for free and creative play. Someone found a dead bird, and everyone went to investigate. A group of kids worked together to build a bridge with sticks. Others were climbing trees. Everyone was getting dirty. It was a special day for me—a joy to see kids outside doing what kids are meant to be doing and a thrill to see first-hand a former student of mine so happily and competently thriving in her career.

Hilary at the Boston Nature Center
Hilary at the Boston Nature Center

Sara Levine is Assistant Professor of Life Science at Wheelock College. She is a veterinarian, educator, and writer. At Wheelock College she teaches Introduction to Plants and Animals, Human Biology, New England Ecology, Human Disease, Dinosaur Biology, and Biology of Reproduction. She favors a hands-on and practical approach to learning. Her ongoing research with students at Wheelock focuses on the flora and fauna of the Muddy River.

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