It’s Outdoor Ed season! In honor of Tarriers’ many May adventures in the great outdoors—including fourth graders at Nature Bridge, third graders at the Mount Rainier Institute, six graders at Sea to Sky, and eighth graders’ Beach Hikes, let’s revisit Ms. Olsen’s exploration of the third grade Nisqually River Watershed curriculum from the Winter 2014 issue of Ties.
Lower Schoolers know that third grade is the Year of the Field Trip. Over the course of the entire academic year, we lead our students on 11 experiential education adventures in the great outdoors, wending our way through the Nisqually River Watershed as part of our integrated social studies and homeroom science curriculum that extends beyond the classroom and into the larger world.
The real world—the world into which our students will graduate—is not compartmentalized into academic subjects such as science, language, or history. In our larger communities away from campus, content areas overlap in each person’s understanding of the world. Our goal with this curriculum is to encourage critical thinking, at a developmentally appropriate level, about our relationship with our surroundings. We begin the year learning about the geology of mountains and the history and management of national parks; the unit culminates with a trip to Longmire and Paradise at Mount Rainier National Park. As the academic year progresses, we work our way down the watershed as we study forest ecology and management (with a field trip to the University of Washington Pack Forest), salmon ecology and management (with a walking field trip to see spawning salmon at Kobayashi Park), hydroelectricity generation and its effects on the river community (with a field trip to Alder Dam), all the way to the end of the estuary at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and Puget Sound at Nisqually Reach Nature Center.
Over the course of the year, we hear stories about treaty history from a local tribal chief, absorb the sounds and silence of an old growth forest, live like pioneers for a day (and come away appreciative of modern childhood), and use binoculars to observe and identify bird species specialized for specific estuary habitats. The field is an extension of our homeroom. Each activity informs our next unit in the classroom as we develop a sense of place—a spiritual, historical, cultural, and biological connection with the community that is integrated into language arts as students read primary sources documenting local history and write opinion essays inspired by a desire to save the wild spaces they’ve experienced, into math as they count and compare animal sightings in diverse environments, and into science as they theorize about geological and ecological shifts at the sites we visit.
When I go to faculty training sessions at these sites, most of the other attendees are middle school or high school teachers who are surprised that we do field work with our third graders and envious of our ability to take the kids into the field so often. It reminds me of our good fortune in working in a school where experiential education begins at a very young age. We are also lucky to partner with families who encourage their children to challenge their personal comfort level. Our third graders are not only capable of learning about the costs and benefits of types of habitat management, they are also eager and avid learners in the field, inquisitive about and attuned to what’s around them.
The third grade Nisqually River Watershed curriculum is unique in its structure but not in its philosophy; it is reflective of the ethos of outdoors and science learning that pervades the entire Charles Wright program across divisions. In one year alone, I backpacked the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier with 10th graders in the fall, snowshoed with third graders at Paradise in March, and backpacked the Washington coast with eighth graders in May—as part of my job! The third graders don’t call it environmental science when they count salmon carcasses and hypothesize on why there are more salmon this year than last year; they just call it having fun and doing their job as learners. They discover at a young age the interconnectedness of science, history, social studies, and the outdoors and that, as a citizen of the world, they have a role to play in each. It is something that begins to live inside of their very bones.
by Carie Olsen, Third Grade Teacher