Virtual learning has expanded for K-12 students in North Dakota during the coronavirus pandemic, but now another option is rampant: the great outdoors.
The State Parks and Recreation Department and Department of Public Instruction have partnered for outdoor learning for public, private, and home school students in state parks with $600,000 in federal rescue plan coronavirus assistance through September 2024, or three summers .
Funding includes 24 field days for primarily sixth graders, individual field trips for classes of all grade levels, financial assistance with program fees and transportation to parks, and an expansion of Parks and Recreation’s “Campfire Series” online videos. The first 10 field days are two days each in April, May, July, September and October.
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park south of Mandan hosted field day students last month. Topics included pioneer/military/Native American history, paleontology, geology, plant and animal adaptations, and historical children’s games, according to the park’s lead interpreter, Austin Glant.
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State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler said, “We’re really trying to innovate and understand that if you’re going to be out in a state park, you can learn math, you can learn science, you obviously learn communication skills.”
She recalled years ago as the assistant principal at Mandan’s Pioneer Elementary School, taking students to Cross Ranch State Park with the school’s physical education teacher. Students did snowshoe hikes, cross-country skiing, and math lessons by measuring the circumferences of trees.
Baesler’s department worked with Parks and Recreation to ensure each park could draw on its natural resources for activities in math, English language arts, science, history and geography, she said.
Erika Kolbow, an interpreter from Turtle River State Park, plays a game of animal trapping with students from Catholic Home Educators of Bismarck-Mandan during a recent Outdoor Education Field Days event at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. Kolbow also taught the students about the animals’ adaptation to their environment on the Northern Plains and how they live and survive in the wild.
Cody Schulz, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said: “From an outdoor education perspective, we think it’s incredibly important to get out into nature and learn in that environment, to touch, feel and smell while learning. “
The program can “add the level of learning that has probably been missed in the few years with some of the virtual learning environments that we’ve seen,” he said.
Virtual learning has its place, “but we’re trying to give students the opportunity to go out and get that hands-on education again,” said Josh Steffan, coordinator for Parks and Recreation Education Outreach.
“Whether it’s nature and science or history and geography, we’re really trying to use the beauty and nostalgia of state parks to achieve that hands-on learning,” he said.
A day will last from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Students rotate between four or five educational activities, depending on the park, on topics such as animal adaptations, history, and fossil paleontology.
Eight to 10 schools and numerous home school families have expressed an interest in field days, Steffan said.
The sponsorship also includes individualized class field trips that Parks and Recreation has run in the past. A teacher can request a topic from a park’s expertise, bring their class, and conduct an outdoor lesson with a park interpreter.
More than 2,500 students are scheduled for individual class field trips in May, Steffan said.
Schulz said Parks and Recreation hopes to continue the program and balance with online tools.
“Of course our goal is to get people, young children, to the parks to learn in that environment, but if we can balance that with some online tools to spark interest and make them more technological from the comfort of their own home To include perspective, do that too,” he said.
Interested schools need only contact either state agency to arrange a park visit, Baesler said. Childcare and summer recreation programs can do the same, she said.
Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or [email protected]
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