by: Joy Choquette

A few years ago in the media a buzzed-about phrase was, “nature deficit disorder.” The phrase described the worrisome trend of today’s youth—and many adults—spending more time indoors than out.

This is less of a problem for seventh- and eighth-grade students at Folsom Education and Community Center, located in South Hero. The students, along with their teacher, Samantha Cantell, worked with the South Hero Land Trust to improve an outdoor trail and educational space behind the school. The project, funded by grants from the Land Trust, RiseVT, the Lake Champlain Basin Program, and Outdoor Gear Exchange helped to pay for necessary materials, while the South Hero Town Recreation Commission, builders of the original trail, provided key support and guidance throughout the project.

Emily Alger, executive director at the South Hero Land Trust said, “We really enjoy working with students. They infused each step of this project with a sense of wonder and joy.” Students were involved in the improvements in a very hands-on way. A community service project at the start of the 2018 academic year saw them refreshing both trail and equipment, making it safer and more fun to use.

“If things were falling apart, people took out the wood (on the boardwalk) and replaced it,” noted Jenna, one of the students. “Kids would go with adults and clear the trails so there was no brush in the way,” added Ava. John noted, “We redid the outdoor classroom where we can go to learn. It wasn’t looking too good,” he said and added that the students helped to replace a table in one area which was broken.

Max and Sky noted that the outdoor classroom had been used in the past for ice skating, studying animals and ecosystems. It had fallen into disuse in recent years, however. When Guy Maguire, program director of the South Hero Land Trust, approached the class to ask for their help designing a learning station to teach their fellow students and community about ecology, the students eagerly jumped in with many suggestions. “They were really creative, and often came up with ideas and solutions outside the usual box,” said Emily. “They were involved in every step of the process from design to final product, and it was great to watch them gain experience and confidence in their skills and abilities as the project went on.”

Here’s how the process worked: Ms. Cantell captured all the ideas on a whiteboard which was packed full of suggestions. Then, the potential projects were narrowed down and voted on. The final handful were run past Guy. The students decided their main goal was educating people in the community about the plants and animals in woods behind the school, and how they interact in an environment. “There are a lot of people right here in the area who don’t know about the trail,” Moretti, a RiseVT Wellness Specialist, noted. “They’ll leave with a greater appreciation of the students of South Hero’s school.”

All the students had their favorite spots along the nature trail. “I like the boardwalk. It’s really peaceful there,” said Aris, while Max said his favorite spot was “a sort of gym area with pull up bars, sit up benches and more.” Sarah finds the new music area sparks her creativity. “I like the drumming area. You can take a stick and whack it (drum).”

Besides the fun of exploring the trail, the project provided project-based learning for the students. Sarah enjoyed the bulletin board with maps for “a hawk’s eye view” of the area. In order to create the bulletin board and maps, students needed to measure out distances to make them accurate. Other students were responsible for “adopting” a plant or animal found in this part of the county and researching it. These facts were then captured in a special booklet that visitors can use to identify plants and wildlife. “It taught me more about poisonous plants,” said Frankie of the assignment. “I learned a lot about food chains. I learned how if one animal wasn’t in the ecosystem, how it would affect all the other animals,” said Ava. Sarah noted that she didn’t know raccoons could climb trees before the project, and Max stated that he’s noticing the plants he researched now when he’s out in nature.

The benefits haven’t been for the students alone, however. Ms. Cantell stated that the teachers utilized the trail during in-service in the fall. “It helped us get outside and be a little active,” she said.

“Guy pitched this idea to me last spring,” said Ms. Cantell. She was able to move her teaching content around in order to get the students involved. “It was a great accommodating activity for the students. It took a little extra time than a normal project would have.”

Emily stated, “These kids are the future of land protection, and the knowledge and skills they develop today will be the building blocks of their toolkits in a few more years.” She noted, “We want to encourage their agency and confidence in creating positive impacts on their community.”

Ms. Cantell agreed and noted that now students can say, “‘Hey, I did this.’ I think that’s a powerful message and something that they can take away.”