While many schools take students on field trips away from their cities to visit faraway battlefields or museums, fourth-grade students at Grundy County Schools are learning of the beauty of their own backyard in South Cumberland State Park, thanks to some local park volunteers.
The Friends of South Cumberland State Park (FSC), a nonprofit group of park enthusiasts dedicated to supporting the park and educating its visitors about all it has to offer, has been teaming up with Grundy County Schools for the last year in an effort to teach fourth-graders all about the park, its flora and fauna, and how to be a friend to nature.
‘Every Child in the Park’
The fourth-grade field trip is an extension of a decade-long program called “Every Child in the Park,” according to Margaret Matens, an FSC volunteer and certified wildlife rehabilitator.
The program seeks to have every elementary school student in Grundy County visit a state park, and arranges a field trip to Stone Door in May for all fifth-grade students. The trip includes a short chaperoned hike, as well as a nature quiz challenge for all the students.
Each year, said Matens, the number of students who say they have never visited a state park is astounding, so in an effort to get more students exposed to the natural beauty in the county, FSC expanded the program to include fourth-graders.
According to Matens, FSC applied for and won a grant from the South Cumberland Community Fund, which allowed for the expansion.
Educational and informative
While the lessons are all about the parks, Matens said she and her other volunteers do try to tailor some of their presentations to the fourth-grade standards for science, social studies and writing, so that they students also receive constructive instruction.
“Each of us are teaching to some of the fourth-grade standards that they are supposed to be learning, so we’ve got the standards and figured out the things that they are going to be learning and trying to include those in our presentations,” she said.
Students receive a nature journal that connects all the elements of the field trip, said Matens.
“Nature journaling is a way for children to connect with nature by writing about and drawing what they see outdoors,” she said.
Included in the lessons are information about the types of animals one can find in Grundy County, including possums, snakes, turtles and amphibians.
Matens displayed two different types of nonpoisonous snakes, box turtles, salamanders, a toad, a frog and three different possums to the children, teaching them all about how the animals live, how they impact the environment and what the students should do if they ever encounter any of the animals.
For example, Matens described how she came to rehabilitate three baby possums, named Purse, Pocket and Pipsqueak, how they live and eat and what she will need to teach them before she could release them back into the wild.
‘Pride and ownership’
According to Matens, in addition to all the educational benefits brought by the trips, “Every Child in the Park” also allows students to take some pride in their local community.
“A really important thing is for the kids that live in Grundy County to have pride and ownership of these parks,” she said.
Matens said the area receives visitors from all over the world, while many people in the area seem to forget that they have such a lush nature preserve all around them.
“We’re trying to encourage them (the students) to see this as a wonderful asset that’s right there in their backyard,” she said.
Additionally, said Matens, the more local residents take pride in their state parks, the more likely it is for Grundy County to see some economic development, which is lacking in the county for the moment.
“There’s not a lot of economic growth in Grundy County,” said Matens, “and ecotourism is an opportunity (for it).”
“These tourists that come up here need things,” she said.
With a limited number of places to stay or restaurants to visit, inviting more people to come hike the parks could lead to a boost in tourism revenue, thus boosting the local economy, she said.
“There’s a lot of room for opportunity for the local people to do some outreach to the people coming in,” said Matens.