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A day in the woods: Program seeks to connect students to nature

Outdoor learning

Savannah Hall, left, chats with Barbara Knight, right, a naturalist with Muddy Sneakers. The Brevard, NC, based program recently expanded to the Piedmont, opening an office in Salisbury. Muddy Sneakers specializes in hands-on science experiences, taking students on day-long hiking expeditions in nearby parks. Rebecca Rider/Salisbury Post

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

LEXINGTON — Elise Tellez gently rolls a millipede inside her cupped palms. The arthropod is short and black, its many legs ending in bright yellow points. Fifth-graders from China Grove Elementary School crowd around her on the narrow dirt trail, pushing to see.

Tellez points out the difference between millipedes and centipedes — the fatter body, the lack of sharp mandibles for biting.

“This species, when agitated, releases a scent that smells like cherries,” she explains, holding her hands out.

The students circle around to try to catch the faint, musky smell. They’re maybe half a mile down a short trail in Boone’s Cave Park, near Lexington, but the morning is still young, and the group of 12 students still has a long way to go.

They’re part of a group of about 76 fifth-graders from China Grove Elementary who spent a day in the woods learning about science and nature courtesy of the Muddy Sneakers organization.

The nonprofit group was started in Brevard nearly a decade ago but expanded to the Piedmont in January thanks to a state appropriation, said Tellez, the Piedmont program director. The new office, located in Salisbury, operates in select public schools in five nearby counties — Rowan being one of them.

Usually, the program is funded by private donation and grants, with schools chipping in a small amount for experience days.

Muddy Sneakers seeks to enhance standard courses of study and provide hands-on, experiential learning opportunities for students. China Grove Elementary’s day in the woods is one example.

“We like to think of ourselves as an extension of the classroom,” Tellez said.

Out on the trail, students hike and hunt for interesting plants, animals and bugs and study scientific concepts. They spend the day in the woods, eating, learning and taking in the great outdoors. Each outing has a theme about which students learn key concepts and conduct experiments.

For China Grove, the theme was energy.

Each group, led by a Muddy Sneakers naturalist, would pause during the day to learn about topics such as conduction, convection and radiation. When possible, concepts were illustrated with a small camp stove and a bowl of boiling water. Students made pine needle tea and built a nest to preserve heat while learning about insulation.

“Science can be a tricky topic for this age group,” Tellez said.

Through the outdoor experience and clear illustrations, Muddy Sneakers tries to take a more sensory approach to its lessons. Students in participating Rowan County schools this year also studied aquatics and forces of motion.

But the experience days serve another purpose.

“We want to connect them to the natural world and foster this appreciation for the outdoors,” Tellez said.

Before the expeditions, Muddy Sneakers staff members visit each school and walk students through trail tips and safety — from avoiding poison ivy to how to use the bathroom when there isn’t one. Students learn a respect for the outdoors and those who call it home — something that they’re reminded of on the trail, as well.

“This is their house,” Barbara Knight, a naturalist with the organization, said of animals and insects the group might encounter. “We’re here; let’s respect that.”

And the students listened. They kept their eyes peeled as they scrambled over stone outcroppings and picked their way down steep trails. When someone spotted something — a bug, the loose, raised dirt that signaled a mole or vole, a patch of young May apple plants or a bird’s nest — the students crowded around cautiously, careful and eager to learn.

Student Savannah Hall said she loved trekking through Boone’s Cave and being able to see views of hills rolling away and peek down the trail at people fishing in the Yadkin River. She also liked the accessibility the park offers if she wants to visit again.

“You can come here anytime when it’s open,” she said.

Megan Federico said she’d like to visit again with her grandparents.

“It’s the most amazing hike I’ve ever been on,” she said. “…I’m having the best time of my life.”

Tellez said that’s the hope of the program — to foster a love for conservation and to encourage students to visit with their families.

Muddy Sneakers partners with several locations in the Piedmont, including Fred Stanback Ecological Preserve in Salisbury, Eagle Point Nature Preserve, Dan Nicholas Park, the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro and Morrow Mountain State Park.

Since the Piedmont office opened in January, Muddy Sneakers has operated only half-programs in the 14 Piedmont schools it serves. Next year, however, students in participating schools will have the opportunity to spend six to 10 days hiking on trails.

Those interested can find out more information at https://muddysneakers.org.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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