From Youngest to Oldest, Great Ideas for a Nature Trail
“I LOVE seeing kids outside!” That’s what a Hillside Elementary parent told me one day last June when 75 children and parents built a nature trail around the perimeter of the school grounds.
That parent happens to be a professional landscaper, so he brought both skills and enthusiasm to the project. With students, school staff, and parents contributing both skills and enthusiasm, we were able to plan, fund, create, and dedicate the nature trail at our school of about 350 children in Niskayuna, a suburb of Schenectady, New York—all in one school year.
The project began with my kindergarten class and Christine O’Reilly’s fifth-grade class just before the start of the 2011-2012 school year. Even before we wrote grants or had approval for constructing a nature trail, we were committed to establishing a strong relationship with our classes and finding ways for the older children to mentor the younger ones.
Mentors and Mentees
In September, we paired students based on strengths and needs as indicated by classroom observation. When we gathered together as a group, our goal was simple: to establish a strong community of learners. Meeting one or two times a month enhanced the relationships among our students. They would get together to work together; for instance, they co-created books about friendship where each described what it meant to be a friend. By January, we felt the mentors and mentees had developed relationships that would help them not only with the nature trail, but also in other aspects of school.
In January, we received word that we had received funding from a PLT GreenWorks! grant, the Niskayuna Community Foundation, and Hillside’s PTO. One of our main objectives was to allow students to establish a vision for the trail, their goals and ways to make it a reality.
Children learn best by seeing and doing. In order to create a nature trail, we knew that observation and experience with seeing a variety of trails would be crucial. Yet, attending several field trips during a school day would be challenging to organize and approve. Instead, we organized weekend or after-school hikes to see other nature trails nearby. Parents were involved by bringing their children to the events and stayed to participate. As a community of learners, our students took pictures and recorded their observations to show those who could not attend and also so the children could discuss what they had seen back in the classroom.
After a hike, the kindergarteners would talk during Morning Meeting about what they noticed along the trail, such as built facilities like benches or playgrounds, trees, and water features. Additionally, we started to establish a common knowledge base using books like Along the Nature Trail and Hiding in the Woods.
Meanwhile, the fifth graders looked at the “big picture” of our terrain. They drew a land map and determined the sunny and shady areas, the wet and dry spots, and other characteristics for trail construction and planting.
Hillside Elementary is nestled in a neighborhood. There are adjacent woods, but they are not on school property, so the children had to plan a trail in our more open area. Yet, they also realized that if they planted trees as part of the project, the trail eventually would be in a wooded area.
They also had to figure out what we could do within our budget. For example, they were enthusiastic about building a pond until they learned that this was not feasible with the available funds. In the end, that lesson was about prioritizing and determining what was most important to the initial construction of a trail.
Eventually, they identified four top priorities: ground cover for the trail, a logo and signage, trees, and a trail guide.
Other grades also became involved in the project. For example, two other kindergarten classes created a rainbow garden and the third graders created a butterfly garden. Our librarian, Debbie Urbriaco, helped guide students to do research with each grade level and also connected the activities to the science curriculum. The school’s head custodian, Donn Armstrong, provided practical knowledge. For example, he recommended stone dust as a ground cover, and he warned against a pumpkin patch for fear of vandalism.
The surrounding neighborhood also needed to know about the plan. Christine O’Reilly’s fifth grade class created a brochure and, with parental supervision, went door to door to nearby houses. They did not get universal support and we had to make a few revisions to the plan as a result. Again, a good lesson.
Construction and Dedication Days
After months of planning, researching and confirming plans, our big day had finally arrived in early June. Extensive planning for the construction day took place beforehand. Students, their parents and families were invited to participate. We organized people into small groups based on the interests they indicated on a RSVP form (laying ground cover, posting signs, planting trees, etc.).
Within each group, there was a parent who was considered the “team leader.” This person would funnel the questions to Christine O’Reilly, Debbie Ubriaco, and myself. Additionally, groups were assigned to a specific area. Although many parents came directly to one of the teachers instead of going to their team leader, we were able to complete the project in two hours, instead of the four or five that we had anticipated! What was most inspiring that day, was the way the community came together to make our students’ dream a reality.
Several weeks later, Hillside Elementary celebrated the opening of the trail. We invited Tom Shimalla, the New York PLT coordinator, to give a keynote speech, and, of course, everyone had the opportunity to walk on the trail. We also invited the media, and articles with photographs appeared in two local newspapers.
Tips for Teachers
- Pairing older and younger students provides learning experiences for them both. However, the relationships take time to develop, and doing specific activities together, such as our friendship books, really helps.
- To involve other grades or classes, make it as easy for them as possible. For example, provide some funding or suggest specific options they can choose to do, such as the butterfly garden created by the school’s third-graders.
- Get support from the principal. Our principal believed in us teachers and in the project. She encouraged us to take risks.
- Ask parents for help. In addition to our parent who was a landscaper, another parent was a carpenter who could help with the signage. A parent who could not participate in the construction was more than willing to organize the refreshments.
- Teach kids about trade-offs and future action. They could not accomplish all they would have liked, but they learned to prioritize. They are now seeking funding for benches and other features.
- Ask local businesses for donations. Many businesses are willing to donate and all it takes is a letter from your students explaining why their project is worthwhile.
Christine Mathews is a kindergarten teacher at Hillside Elementary School in Niskayuna, New York. She is a new PLT trained educator who is looking to connect PLT activities with the school’s new nature trail.