Sun peeks through leaves
Baby birds cry for mothers
Water flows gently
–Braydon, 3rd grade
When third graders at Bessie Weller Elementary School learned about the Japanese poetic form of haiku this year, they finally had the perfect place to try their hand at writing one: the Weller Woods Learning Trail. Newly built on a 3.3-acre wooded lot adjacent to the school with a grant from VOF’s Get Outdoors Fund, the trail gave the kids a chance to express themselves while experiencing the outdoors on “Haiku Hikes” organized by the school librarian.
It’s just one of the many outdoor learning opportunities the new trail makes possible, says the school’s principal, Sandra McGrath, who adds that teachers at each grade level are designing lessons that link state Standards of Learning to experiences on the trail. As these curricular connections are established, McGrath envisions all 380 students at the Title 1 school participating in “regular, sustained outdoor experiences” on the trail over the course of a year. The goal, she states, is a better “appreciation and understanding of how our school community is part of a larger ecosystem.”
Designing the trail has been a community effort, says Tamra Willis, a retired professor of teacher education from Mary Baldwin University who worked with McGrath on the grant application. “We put together a trail committee with people from local community groups like Shenandoah Green, the Augusta Bird Club and the local chapter of the Virginia Native Plant society,” she states. “Plus we have a retired fisheries biologist from the Department of Wildlife Resources and quite a few teachers and administrators from Bessie Weller. We got input from everybody.”
Building the trail was also a community effort. Volunteer days have brought out parents, as well as the Shenandoah chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists. Willis is particularly impressed with volunteers from Mary Baldwin University’s men’s basketball team. “They’ve been out several times now, and when they come out, we get so much done. They can move a mountain of mulch in no time at all.”
There is still work to do, including developing different “Investigation Stations” along the trail, with bench seating and whiteboard kiosks that teachers can use to conduct lessons.
Willis, a longtime advocate of connecting student learning to the outdoors, is excited about what the new trail will bring to Bessie Weller students. “We know from the research that getting kids outside in nature has lots of benefits—physically, mentally and socially. Nature is also a great teacher, providing real-world, meaningful learning experiences for students.”
Principal McGrath has seen it with her own eyes, watching students get to know their new trail. “They absolutely love it,” she says. “We are so excited about how this project is moving forward.”