VALLEY FALLS — The kids had to keep their voices and excitement down as they headed into the Northwest Marsh, so nature let the excitement out for them.
Birds sang their loudest songs, while frogs croaked along the edge of the waterline to the students. One might say that an unexpected bald eagle’s nest disrupted the Valley Falls Elementary School field trip to the marsh, but teachers instead used it as a chance to enhance the kids’ outdoor experience as they learned about conservation and respecting animals’ habitats.
This was the great outdoors — just 100 of the expansive 1,000 acres of protected wetland habitat surrounding Valley Falls and making up the Perry Wildlife Area.
And on Earth Day, it would be their classroom.
Earth Day field trip teaches students about Kansas wetland conservation
“Aren’t you happy to be outside and not in school today?” Fifth-grade teacher Paula Leidel, who organized the trip, asked the students. “But just because we’re not in a school doesn’t mean we’re not in a classroom. This is your school today.”
Andrew Page, a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism area manager, introduced the children to the marsh and wetlands. He told them about the various birds and wildlife that make the marsh their home.
“They’re a critical habitat type that is declining over the recent past,” Page told the students. “(The wetlands) are something we don’t have a lot of left, and we’ve got to take care of what we still have.”
Page told The Topeka Capital-Journal that field trips like Valley Falls Elementary School’s also serve as exposure to careers like his that focus on conservation and protecting wildlife.
“With folks spending more time behind computer screens, any opportunity we can take to get kids outside is important,” Page said. “Get them interested at a young age and hopefully instill in them an appreciation for nature.”
For some students, Earth Day field trip is sharing their love of the outdoors
At a rural school like Valley Falls Elementary, students are about as likely to live on a farm as not.
A mixture of bright pink tennis shoes and river boots marched their way along the marsh’s trails. At Merlyn Mahoney’s fur activity station, the retired printer guessed that a few of the students likely could have led activities in identifying the various signs of wildlife they could see along the marsh.
“I get to see this all the time,” said second-grader Rowdy Wistuba, who lives on a farm. “But I’m still happy because I get to see the animals.”
Still, Rowdy said he was excited that his friends and classmates, especially the ones who don’t live in the country, got to see what he experiences on a daily basis.
Field trip makes classroom lessons real
At the fur activity station, Rowdy’s teacher, Nina Jackson, said the field trip particularly reinforces concepts they might learn in the classroom but wouldn’t experience first-hand otherwise.
“When you learn about it in class and you see videos, it’s not real,” Jackson said. “But when they come out here and they see it in real-life and are able to touch it, the concepts stick with them, especially when it’s multi-sensory.”
Beth Bernasek, who regularly works as a substance abuse counselor, has children at the school and volunteered to help lead an activity teaching students about birds and their migration.
The kids at her station excitedly took turns peering out across the marsh through binoculars.
For Bernasek, the field trip goes even beyond learning about the marsh and connects them, almost on a spiritual level, with the environment.
“It is loud,” she said of the howling wind, singing birds and croaking frogs Friday. “But it’s like nature is talking to the kids.”
Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.