“An environment-based education movement―at all levels of education―will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”
―Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
A few weeks ago I had the chance to stop in on a special activity at Avon’s Hickory Elementary School. Jen Davies from Avon Outdoor Learning Center—a total rock star in the kids’ eyes—had come to talk minerals. By day’s end 120 children would make the connection between minerals and something they encounter every day, toothpaste.
In each hour-long session, Jen touched on Coke cans’ recyclability, Lunchables’ sodium content, Crest’s new products—and the broad appeal of minty-tasting toothpaste.
Discussing the sodium content of common foods.
Throughout, Jen telegraphed the absolute awesomeness of minerals. These third-graders were right there with her.
This time of year, most of Jen’s work takes place in the classroom, but the Outdoor Learning Center is true to its name in every other season (and on some milder winter days).
Jen Davies leads a group of small learners on a winter outing to catch snowflakes and look at their shapes. Photo courtesy of Avon OLC.
On seven acres belonging to the Avon School Corporation, students encounter the real-world stuff that makes science, math, and history come alive. Over 9,100 students, parents and faculty members visited the OLC in 2012-13, exploring two miles of trails and habitats spanning prairie, woodland, and wetland. A beehive and 7,000-square foot vegetable garden—tended by a garden club of 85 budding gardeners—offer further learning opportunities.
Back at Hickory Elementary, Jen divided the kids into groups and funneled them to one of four tables to make toothpaste. At one table they measured a half teaspoon calcium carbonate with a quarter teaspoon baking soda, according to the recipe. At the next, they could handle crystals, stones, and a Coke can in the “mineral museum.”
The final two stations were the most exciting: droppers to add the coloring and flavoring of their choice.
Adding flavoring with help from a volunteer.
Would it be tutti-frutti, traditional mint, or maybe cherry, coco-lemon, or some other variation? And what color should it be? Tints of cherries, neon green, and ice blue bloomed in the paper cups.
Blue proved to be a popular color.
Wrapping up, Jen told them, “Minerals are really cool—you might decide on a career using this, where you can do something like make toothpaste.”
When I spoke to her afterward about why she’s so passionate about her work, she told me she wants the children “to see themselves as part of this amazing whole.”
“We are all just circles within connections within circles. We need healthy soil and clean water and clean air to be able to thrive. The choices we make on a daily basis affect not only us but everything around us.”
Sadly, Avon OLC faced major budget cuts in 2011. Jen has been raising money and finding grants to pay her own salary. Late last year word went out that funding had dried up—without help, her position would be gone by this month. Since then several thousand dollars have been raised. It’s enough to keep her, for now, until the end of the school year, but the future is uncertain.
As Jen wrote me in an email, “It’s just so innovatively unusual for a public school district to have such a resource, we are giving it all we have to keep going. When kids bring me their entire piggy bank, how can I not try everything I can think of?”
Several fundraisers are in the works to keep the center going. Visit the center’s site to see how you can help.
Update: After I posted this, Jen was awarded the 2013 Donald H. Lawson Award for Conservation Education from the Hendricks County Soil & Water Conservation District.