Hitchcock promotes increased outdoor learning at Northampton Public Schools

By Katie Koerten

Note: This is an article from our Salamander Scoop eNewsletter in January, 2023. To read more and subscribe to Salamander Scoop, click here.

Hitchcock educator Katie Koerten leading a lesson in the Take it Outside! Program funded by NEF.

In 2021, the Hitchcock Center received an endowment grant from the Northampton Education Foundation to conduct the Take It Outside program. Between September 2021 and May 2022, Hitchcock educator Katie Koerten visited Northampton students in grades K-3 at their schoolyards, teaching STEM lessons through the lens of a grade-specific animal. Through curriculum-aligned lessons, games, and activities, the Take It Outside program aims to provide direct instruction to students while mentoring teachers in outdoor teaching skills.

Students at each of the four Northampton elementary schools- Bridge Street, Jackson Street, Leeds, and RK Finn Ryan Road schools- participated in three visits by the end of the school year. Each grade actively engaged in learning on their school grounds through an animal lens: squirrels for Kindergartners, birds for first graders, beavers for second graders, and foxes for third graders. In addition to receiving direct instruction from Katie, each classroom teacher received a curated STEM lesson kit. Each kit contained both the lessons designed by the Hitchcock Center and all the required materials, so that the teachers may replicate the lessons themselves.

Meanwhile, school tech coordinators Rocky Mariani-Prall and David Cantler created a website with photos, videos and stories from students. In June 2022 they completed a QR-enabled trail on school grounds in which families and community members may use their devices to view content of what the students learned and created this year. 

Here are a few glimpses of outdoor learning experiences that we had:

Kindergartners discuss squirrels while standing in a “toe circle” Practicing counting: Did we collect enough “acorns” for the winter?

In the fall, Kindergartners got oriented to learning outdoors by meeting Sid the Squirrel puppet and answering the question, “What do squirrels do?” We moved like squirrels, pretending to climb trees, scurry around, dig and bury pretend acorns. Then we played a game about squirrels getting ready for winter in a food collection game. When the round was over, we counted our “acorns” (bottlecaps) and asked, “Did we collect enough for winter?”

For the first graders’ winter lesson, we studied bird beaks and diets, and how that related to bird migration. We looked at pictures of a hummingbird, a bald eagle, a robin, a cardinal and a great blue heron, and discussed how the shape and style of the beak gave us clues to the food that the bird ate. From there, we discussed whether certain birds could get the food they needed in Northampton in the winter. Then, we played a game to simulate the challenges of bird migration. In advance, Katie had hung up “migration checkpoint” signs around the schoolyard. As a class, we “flocked” from sign to sign, hearing updates from Katie along the way, such as “Oh no! We reached our favorite resting ground, but it has been paved over and it takes us three extra days to find enough food to continue flying south!” At the end of the activity, Katie asked the students that if they were birds, would they rather migrate or stay in Northampton for the winter? After embodying what the challenge would feel like, the students gained appreciation for what it takes to be a migratory bird.

Second grade students pretend to be beavers collecting food for winter

During the winter lesson, the second grade students studied beaver teeth and diets. First we studied their own teeth using mirrors, using adjectives to describe our teeth, such as “square-shaped”; “yellowish-white”; and “pointy”. Then we looked at pictures of beaver skulls and teeth and compared and contrasted them to our own. What was remarkable about beaver teeth is that they contain iron, making them extra strong (and orange-colored!). Then we played a tag-style game in which we pretended to be beavers collecting and storing food for winter, while also escaping a hungry coyote.

A student’s drawing titled “Beavers” as part of their research into local beaver behavior.

The third graders explored the diet of a red fox in our spring lesson. We discussed whether we thought foxes were carnivores, herbivores, or omnivores. It turns out that red foxes are omnivores, and eat a great variety of foods depending on the season. We created a visual map on the ground of the seasons of the year, and placed food cards on the season in which we thought the red fox would find that food. Then, in groups of 4, students surveyed their schoolyard for what a red fox could find to eat in springtime. We finished with a poem, Vole in Winter, by Joyce Sidman, about one of a fox’s favorite foods, a vole, who is being hunted by a fox!

We are thrilled that we’ve received funding for a second year. Our hope is that after Take It Outside is complete, teachers will feel more confident managing groups of students outside for high quality, standards-aligned learning, and that more students will enjoy the benefits to be gained by STEM and literacy education that happens in an outdoor setting.

You can see more images, video, and education content from the first year of the Take it Outside! program on this website. 


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