ECO – Learning Through Experience

in Environmental learning by

By Sarah Kinter

On a Tuesday afternoon in mid-January I visited East Montpelier Elementary School’s Kindergarten/First Grade teacher Jillian Zeilenga and her class for an “Educating Children Outdoors” [ECO] afternoon. Our learning theme was “Force of Motion,” a welcome antidote to  the raw cold of that afternoon.

East Montpelier Elementary kindergartners experiment with ropes and pulleys during their Educating Children Outdoors (ECO) class.

Mrs. Zeilenga’s and Mrs. Gariboldi’s students got all bundled up, prepared for outdoor learning, having participated in ECO one to two afternoons a week since September. EMES is blessed with beautiful woods behind the school which have long lent themselves to outdoor play and education. Introduced by Mrs. Zeilenga five years ago after seeing it piloted at Union Elementary School, ECO is based on site at EMES and co-taught by K-2 EMES teachers and ECO staff from the North Branch Nature Center.

ECO is the latest in a long tradition of environmental education programs offered at EMES. Four Winds, previously called Environmental Learning for the Future (ELF), was taught for many years at EMES and is currently offered at Calais, Doty, and Rumney Elementary Schools. VINS’ Environmental Citizenship Program and Angela Gibbons of Earth Walk are also part of this rich tradition.

ECO coordinator Angie Barger works with teachers to complement their own curricula with ECO’s standards-based curriculum. Teachers also draw from Four Winds. The core ECO routines form “the walls of the outdoor classroom. ECO makes familiar the child’s local ecosystem through their senses. They know what is beyond the wooded boundaries of the playground and how the seasons change because they learn and play in these woods every week” says Barger. Karen Liebermann, a parent volunteer, has noticed that the current 5th and 6th grade students that began ECO in Kindergarten and are now practicing Nature Journaling are “noticeably more comfortable and curious in the woods.” The program is also praised by fellow teachers Lisa Gariboldi and Beth Parker for fostering an “awareness of and appreciation for our natural world…while incorporating teamwork and community building.”

Back to our Kindergarten class and two volunteer fathers, Rubin Bennett and Doug Bair,  Mrs. Zeilenga gathers a circle with her handmade drum to hear the learning goals for the afternoon. She describes several experiments to be conducted in the field before entering the woods. We are going to use our own bodies to learn about “Force of Motion.” Separated into groups of three, one child pretends to be a log and the other two children are tasked with pushing the log. Energetic motion ensues with excited pushing and rolling. What did they learn? That pushing and rolling downhill was easier than going uphill, and hitting obstacles such as bumps, caused friction and challenge. Our second experiment involved pulling each other which the students soon learned was heavier and more difficult than pushing.

All warmed up, we then head into the woods to the familiar ECO spot to form a circle on sitting stumps. There is an outdoor kitchen, built by a parent, as well as a fire pit. Accompanied by Mrs. Zeilenga on her drum we sing a song about the North Wind followed by the telling of a Native American story. Ready for the next activity, we then split into groups to perform two more experiments. One group heads to the playground to roll different sized and weighted balls, and themselves, down the slides. What did we predict and learn? That heavier balls rolled faster than lighter ones. The second group was given a kit of ropes, a pulley, and a pail. After much experimenting, the children quickly discover that the pails move faster down a sloped versus a horizontal trajectory. SUCCESS! And FUN! And PLAY! And LEARNING, all simultaneously, AND OUTSIDE! What a full and happy afternoon. I cannot wait to visit Mrs. Zeilenga’s class again. But don’t take just my word for it. Here are some testimonials from Mrs. Zeilenga and her students:

“I like seeing nature.”- Lacey

“I like that we get to have campfires because it keeps us warm in the winter.”-Sena

“I like meeting all the different people, like the grownups that come to help.” -Adaline

“I learn about nature, and I like the games that we do at the beginning.” -Calvin

“My favorite part of ECO is that I have fun with my friends and get to play in the outdoor kitchen.”

“ECO is important because it gets kids outside and we can explore nature without hurting it, and we get to have fun.”- Isaac

“ECO is important because it is about nature and we get to do it in the woods with the trees and the birds.”-Mavis

“I believe ECO is important to all students because it reconnects students with the natural world and extends the classroom beyond the school’s walls.  Students integrate what they learn inside and are able to extend and apply it outside.  ECO also has a way of connecting parents and community members with the school in a way I have never seen before.”  – Mrs. Zeilenga

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