Field Studies

Lowell's Kindergarten and 1st grade outdoor science program is just one example of field studies at Lowell. It brings hands-on learning to the fore and takes advantage of the school's nature-filled campus. 
We want our students to unplug, to get up from their desks and move, to feel the sun and wind on their cheeks, and to wonder why the sun is yellow or how the wind could power a lightbulb. We want them to experience a positive connection with nature so that they learn its value and humanity’s place within it. And ultimately, we want them to become good stewards of the environment and to understand the role that science plays in that stewardship. It all starts with taking children outside into the natural world in their early years at school.

Learning Science in the Field

Outdoor educators need to be flexible and open-minded in the planning process. If they aren’t, they can miss exciting opportunities for learning that simply can’t be planned. A case in point: Lucas Kelly, Lowell’s outdoor science teacher, noticed a hawk flying overhead each morning as he prepared for his Kindergarten and 1st grade science classes. He really wanted his students to catch a glimpse of the magnificent bird.
 
This is not an experience he could guarantee for the children, so instead, he planned a lesson on songbirds commonly seen on campus. He thought that drawing his students’ attention to the smaller birds might prime them to spot the hawk whenever it might return. The day came, and the lesson on songbirds was going well. Students were learning about the birds’ behaviors and simulating cardinals’ communication with a call-and-response exercise. And then, as if on cue, one boy in the class noticed the hawk sitting quietly above in a tree. As the children looked up, a bald eagle flew overhead.
 
The following week, Lucas showed students the Washington, DC, Bald Eagle Nest Cam. For this project, the American Eagle Foundation and the USDA have focused two livestreaming HD cameras on a pair of mated bald eagles—“Mr. President” and “The First Lady”—whose nest is located in a tulip poplar tree in the US National Arboretum. Last year, the pair of eagles successfully raised two eaglets that fledged in June. With this peek into the secret life of eagles as a hook for the students, Lucas segued into a lesson on the larger birds of prey. He and the children used a tape measure to approximate the wingspans of different birds of prey and compare them to the wingspans of the smaller songbirds they had studied the week before. Children were eager to learn that eagles have wingspans up to six feet.

Benefits of Outdoor Learning

Over fifty years ago, the New Canaan Nature Center started the first preschool to use nature as the focus of its daily activities. In the last decade, there has been a significant uptick of interest in “early childhood environmental education” and in nature education in general. Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, is probably the single most influential work in this movement. In the book, Louv presents research that shows the positive effects that spending time in nature has on healthy childhood development, particularly children’s physical and emotional wellbeing.

Nature can also play a key role in children’s cognitive development. “Natural sciences have always been the gateway for students into science because they are so easily accessed,” says Middle School Director and former Science Coordinator Kavan Yee. Head of School Debbie Gibbs agrees: “If you are trying to encourage children’s curiosity and provide opportunities to ask questions and observe, everything outside is a possibility.”

Goals of the New Outdoor Science Program

Lucas says that the primary goals of the new Kindergarten and 1st grade outdoor science program are to 1) help children forge a positive connection to nature and 2) engage them in scientific thinking. He wants children to be intrigued by nature. Once they are interested, he can encourage in them scientific habits of mind. He emphasizes key concepts—question, hypothesis, observation, and conclusion—and by the end of the year he wants the young scientists in his charge to know what to do next when they have a hypothesis.

Nature, Emotions, and Learning

Part of helping children forge a positive connection to nature is allowing them time to be in nature with an experienced and knowledgeable guide like Lucas. Debbie explains, “You can’t stay inside and learn everything from an academic or theoretical point of view. You could study bald eagles on the internet, but it is different when you experience it. There’s an emotional response. Going outside is how you internalize learning about nature.” And that’s what makes learning stick.

The wonder of watching a butterfly’s metamorphosis, finding a salamander under a rock, or discovering why winter is quieter than the other seasons—these are just some of the joys of learning about nature while being immersed in it. And it is hard to imagine a better place for young children to explore nature than Lowell’s tree-filled, eight-acre campus adjacent to Rock Creek Park. Bundled up in puffy jackets and boots, seeing their breath condense as they head into the wintry air, Kindergartners and 1st graders observe that Rock Creek is half water and half ice and develop hypotheses to explain the phenomenon. On another day, they learn what nearby deer need to survive the coldest months in Washington, DC.

No doubt, nature can be both awesome and fearsome. So, in addition to scientific thinking, Lucas helps his students gain practical knowledge about the outdoors that helps keep them safe while they are exploring. When Kindergarten Teacher Rosa Royle mentioned to Lucas that some of the children were afraid of bees, Lucas developed a lesson on the benefits of bees and what to do when a bee bothers you. On a subsequent hike through Rock Creek Park, Lucas taught students how to recognize poison ivy and gave them a rhyme to help them remember: “Hairy vine is no friend of mine.” He has heard kids reciting the rhyme as they confidently walk through the woods weeks, even months, afterward.

Science for Our Time

We live in a time of heightened sensitivity about the environment and the detrimental effects that humans are having on it. There are seven billion people on the planet and a fixed amount of land and water, so we try not to be wasteful. We want to know how long our lightbulbs will last, what Tesla’s latest innovation will be. We try to eat local and organic foods. We might garden, compost, or bike to work. We note with interest that the next wave of science jobs will be related to clean energy and environmental protection.

At Lowell we want our students to unplug, to get up from their desks and move, to feel the sun and wind on their cheeks, and to wonder why the sun is yellow or how the wind could power a lightbulb. We want them to experience a positive connection with nature so that they learn its value and humanity’s place within it. We want them to become good stewards of the environment and to understand the role that science plays in that stewardship. And it all starts with taking children outside into the natural world in their early years at school.