As a teacher, I can honestly say these past few weeks have been TOUGH. It is hard not seeing my students’ smiles every day while they learn something new. It is hard not seeing my coworkers for a little mid-day positivity. It is hard not knowing when this will be over, or when we’ll get to see our students dressed to the nines in their prom attire or graduation caps and gowns. But, through all of the hardships, there is one thing keeping me sane and positive during quarantine: the BEAUTIFUL outdoors! There is just something about the sun shining, the breeze blowing, and the birds chirping that instantly brightens my day.
A lot of lucky fifth graders in Rowan County have experienced this same joy and love of the outdoors this school year through an organization called Muddy Sneakers, an outdoor science education program that works with fifth-grade public school students across 11 counties in Western North Carolina and eight counties in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Muddy Sneakers’ Piedmont office is located right in downtown Salisbury on E. Council Street, and they currently partner with eight of the 19 elementary schools in the county, adding school partners each year. This innovative program educates on the core concepts of the state science curriculum using hands-on, experiential teaching methods spread over multiple outdoor classroom experiences. Muddy Sneakers strives to create in children a lifelong love of nature and do this in a way that enhances academic achievement, inspires the joy of living, and plants an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things.
Their set-up is what makes them unique; they don’t have a nature center or science center. Instead, they utilize parks and public land near each school to take the fifth graders on six field trips throughout the year with curriculum directly aligned with the NC Essential Standards for Science that gets them learning outside. Through exploration of the outdoors, they also learn valuable leadership and team-building skills, as well as outdoor safety tips.
Elise Tellez, the Piedmont Field Office Director for Muddy Sneakers, says “We find that unfortunately, a lot of kids don’t spend their time outside, so we love to introduce them to places and parks in their community where they can re-visit on their own.”
Putting the “S” in STEM
On each expedition, the students dive into one science topic, straight from the curriculum needed for end-of-grade testing. They spend all day outside—even eating a picnic lunch—and do things like explore the area, use the scientific method, record data, perform experiments, play games, and have hands-on experiences that let them apply that science topic to real life. They are in small groups of about 12 students, each group led by a Muddy Sneakers instructor, a highly qualified science educator who is trained to make the students feel like little scientists! Topics include aquatic ecosystems, ecosystem interactions, energy: conservation and transfer, forces and motion, inheritance and adaptation, living systems, matter: properties and change, terrestrial ecosystems, and weather.
Studies show that the Muddy Sneakers program significantly increases girls’ knowledge and interest in science, and teachers report that students show improved behavior and increased attention as a result of Muddy Sneakers. Every school that partners with Muddy Sneakers sees growth in their science EOG scores.
Tammy Thompson, a fifth-grade teacher at Mt. Ulla Elementary School, says that she loves how the Muddy Sneakers curriculum aligns with the state standards so well. She says she loves to see her students learning without even realizing they are learning.
“While being out in the woods all day, the students learn a lot about themselves and grow in their knowledge, character, and collaboration skills. For some of them, this is their first time experiencing the woods. They love seeing all the different wildlife, and eating lunch outdoors is always an adventure!” she says.
“We really just want to be the best partner we can be to schools—yes, we offer the six science expeditions to our school partners, but we also want to be a part of their school community, so we set up activities and are there for their science nights or STEM nights. We offer pre and post curriculum connections to teachers to incorporate into their classroom lessons before and after expeditions. We really just want to help them!” says Elise.
I don’t know about you, but I sure wish Muddy Sneakers was around and partnering with my elementary school when I was in fifth grade! Hands-on learning experiences make learning more applicable for everyone, and I think this is such a great partnership some of our schools have! I’m excited to see it keep growing and impacting students in Rowan County.
Benefits of Learning Outdoors
While children are out of school, Muddy Sneakers is obviously not able to take kids on the expeditions that they love to do, but they are doing all that they can to support learning by providing remote learning resources through their social media accounts. In the coming months, you can expect to see videos with guiding questions about scientists, scavenger hunts, ideas for outdoor creative writing, and videos for different things you can do to explore outside of your house and how to make scientific observations from your window!
Research shows there are an abundance of benefits children get from learning outdoors, from decreased stress levels, to increased motivation and self-reliance, to enhanced communication skills and better attitudes about the environment, to better health, grades, and overall behavior. What better way to spend your quarantine then by getting outside with your children and all learning something new and exciting while you’re at it?
So, make sure you give them a follow (@muddy_sneakers_ on Instagram and Muddy Sneakers on Facebook) and try out some of their activities! My English-lovin’ favorite so far has been “Write some Poet-Tree,” where kids are encouraged to reflect on their observations of a tree in their backyard through writing a poem! Another favorite is the “Signs of Spring Scavenger Hunt.” Try it out and let us know what you and your kids found!
Tips and Tricks for Backyard Exploration While Social Distancing
Elise Tallez and I encourage everyone to get outside during this time…trust me, it’s good for your sanity and psyche! If you don’t consider yourself a scientist or science teacher and wouldn’t know where to begin, here are a few of Elise’s favorite tips and tricks for backyard exploration!
- Explore from different distances! Get really close to an object (while being safe) to make observations. If you have a magnifying glass, use it! Then try get really far away from the object, try different angles, see what you notice from different positions. Can you notice different things by looking at the same object from different places?
- At Muddy Sneakers, we love using this prompt to make observations: ‘I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of ‘! Pick up an object you find outside your home and list what you notice, then ask questions about what you wonder, then go through some things that the object may remind you of. For example, if I pick up a leaf then I may go through the following: I notice this leaf is green, it also has brown spots, it looks like there are a couple of holes in it, there are also some lines, it sounds crunchy. I wonder how those holes got there? Did something eat its way through? The lines on the leaf remind me of the lines on the palm of my hand or how rivers and creeks connect to each other.
- Start a nature journal and try drawing the things you see and find. Do what scientists do and take notes. How large is it? What color? Does it smell? Is there a hole in it? What could have caused it? Did an animal eat part of this? What animal would have done that? The list of questions goes on!
- Try using the iNaturalist app on a phone or iPad to practice identifying things you find!
- Measure out a square foot of ground in your yard and then catalog the things you find. How many different things are there in that space? How many living vs. non-living things? How many different colors can you find?
If ya’ll see me outside with a magnifying glass and a nature journal, just mind your business! LOL!
Thanks, Muddy Sneakers, for helping me become a scientist and for the new ideas to explore outside during quarantine!
Happy exploring and social distancing, ya’ll!
**As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Muddy Sneakers is always happy to receive donations. If you are someone who has been encouraged or inspired by the outdoors during this period of staying at home, or are using some of the resources posted on their social media, consider donating online at muddysneakers.org or by phone at 704-209-4009!