By Anne Bremer
It’s lunchtime on a crisp, clear January day. Ivonne, a 5th grade student, has spent her morning exploring Wildcat Creek on a field trip to Alvarado Park, and now she approaches us brimming with excitement. Normally shy in class, she tells us that she feels so much more confident speaking up here in the outdoors than in class! As Ivonne returns to her friends, her teacher chimes in. “This is awesome,” she tells us. “I’m so grateful to have you leading the field trip. I don’t have any of the training to be able to lead something like this on my own, even if we had the budget for it.” Through our Explore Your Watershed program, Ivonne and her classmates attended two field trips to local regional parks with The Watershed Project this year.
Our field trips address the critical need of providing children with opportunities to spend time in nature. Studies have shown that outdoor play increases fitness and vitamin D levels, reduces stress and anxiety, and improves vision, attention, and critical thinking. Children who spend time in nature are mentally and physically healthier even into adulthood. And yet, the average American child spends just 4 to 7 minutes per day in unstructured outdoor play, and more than 7 hours in front of an electronic screen. A single day outside can make a big impact–research has shown that even “short-term environmental education programs can be effective at increasing knowledge and promoting feelings of stewardship” in children.
This school year, we taught over 1,600 students, and took nearly 1,100 of those students on at least one of our 32 field trips to local natural spaces such as Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, Wildcat Canyon Regional Park, Kennedy Grove Regional Park, and Shimada Friendship Park. Nearly 250 students, like Ivonne, participated in more than one field trip. Results from our program evaluations indicate that our programs do help students build familiarity with local ecosystems and their importance. After completing the Explore Your Watershed Program, for example, students were able to correctly match a significantly higher number of local organisms with their habitats, and 73% of students agreed with the statement, “People and ecosystems depend on each other,” up from 43% at the beginning of the program. In addition to what the evaluations show, we can tell our work makes an impact on students through our interactions with them.
It’s now February, and Ivonne and I are combing the beach at Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, flipping over rocks to discover what critters live underneath them. “A crab!” she exclaims, and I quickly scoop it up, showing her how to make a little shelter for it by cupping my hands together. “Want to try holding it?” I ask, and she shies away, shaking her head. After some gentle coaxing and several reassurances that the crab won’t hurt her, she tentatively holds out her hands. She exclaims when I pass the crab to her, but keeps her hands perfectly cupped around it, and then breaks into a grin. “I want to go show my friends!” She teaches her friends how to gently hold the crab before returning it to its sandy home, and together they spend the rest of their time at the shore flipping over rocks to find more. It’s a tale we see often: students may be hesitant to venture outside in the rain, walk through the mud in rubber boots, or take a closer look at a bug crawling on a tree, but once they step outside their comfort zone, they enjoy their time outdoors and feel proud that they tried something new.
Bringing kids into nature is important, but it sure isn’t cheap. At a cost of around $800 per bus for a field trip, it takes a village to provide field trips to students who may not have many other opportunities to spend time outdoors. We are thrilled that our work will continue to be supported by a three-year grant from The San Francisco Foundation. You can help too–just click here to donate and help pay for a bus! On behalf of all of us on the TWP Education Team, thank you for supporting our efforts to provide children with quality experiences outside in local parks.