Mission Driven: Connecting Youth to Nature and Habitat Restoration

by Shane Gibson, Environmental Education Director

Timing can be everything. From when you plant a seed in winter to when a bird begins its migration to when a new educational partnership begins. The timing for the partnership with Sycamore’s Environmental Education Program (EE) and Cedars Christian School was indeed no coincidence.

Last spring, Cedars’ teachers and administrators had been utilizing their outdoor spaces, encouraging students and families to visit Sycamore preserves, and having volunteer work days to clear the understory of their woods which was predominantly non-native bush honeysuckle. This cleared understory has become the focal point of their outdoor classroom. It includes a fire pit, picnic tables, multiple seating areas, and more.

Then Cedars’ staff read an article that included a partnership between Sycamore EE and Harmony School’s 5th-6th grade. Harmony teachers Kathy Boone and Zevon Adkisson had developed a holistic curricular approach based around each 5th and 6th grade student receiving their Indiana Junior Master Naturalist certification. Having been a classroom teacher and worked in many schools, I can say that this nature-based curriculum that includes all subject areas should be admired, celebrated, and duplicated. Cedars staff talked to the Harmony teachers and Sycamore EE was called.  Again, timing was perfect.  Teaching in the outdoors has regained renewed interest and necessity.

The first lesson with any class always includes a Sycamore overview of what Sycamore does and how they do it. The first lesson with the Cedar Christian School’s 3rd-7th graders focused on Sycamore protecting and restoring habitats. When discussing habitats, it is important that the essential elements of a habitat are known: food, water, shelter, and space.  The students were given a piece of cardboard that represented their piece of land. The “land” was barren. Their instructions were to restore the land or create a habitat that included all the essential elements for an animal of their choice to survive. In small groups and in their own spaces as if they were property owners spread across southern Indiana, the students worked on their habitat restoration projects.

As students finished their restoration project, we met back together to present to the rest of the “land owners.”  As each of the groups presented, they left their parcel of land in the presentation area. As each consecutive group presented, I had them leave their parcel of land, too, but it had to be touching the parcel of land of one of the other groups. When all the groups added their restored habitat with the others, the waterways of each group connected. When side by side with the map of the Bean Blossom Creek Conservation Area, the similarities where amazing.

The conclusion? Each of us can make a difference. Each of us can contribute to conservation. Each of these 3rd-7th grade “land owners” were restoring their land, protecting water sources, and providing key habitat for plants and animals. Each had a different size parcel. May have been five acres. May have been 60 acres. When they were put together, they created a large amount of land and water protected. Just as Sycamore Land Trust for the past 30 years has protected 20 acres here, 100 acres there, another 50 here to get to over 10,000 acres protected in Southern Indiana. Timing is everything. And there is no better time to help Sycamore fulfill its mission of protecting land in Southern Indiana and connecting people of all ages and abilities to nature.