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Nature as a Classroom the New Trend at School

Why sit in a classroom and write poems about flowers, when you could be out among the flowers when you write? There you could smell them, feel them, examine them in more detail.

That's just what elementary school students in DeKalb County are doing.

"We've helped develop nature trails at about 35 or 40 of DeKalb County's 70 elementary schools," said DeKalb County Extension Agent Christi Gaasch.

Financial support from an Urban Resources Partnership grant helped fund a position to design and develop trails and to write curriculum materials to help teachers use the trail to teach.

"Successful nature trails have certain key elements," Gaasch said. "You can't just have a trail that begins at the back of the ballfield and wanders a few feet through the woods."

She considers these elements essential:

* A permanent, committed, influential member of the staff, like the principal or assistant principal, must support the effort.

* The trail has to be available to all teachers. Curricula have to be written so teachers can use it as part of their classroom.

* Most of the successful nature trails are integrated into the whole school landscape rather than being just a path behind the school. They include landscaping in front, behind and around the school as part of the trail.

* Give the trail a name. Almost all the successful trails have a sign that designates the name of the trail and makes them a distinct part of the school structure.

"It's important to include all of the students in the design and building of the trail," Gaasch said. "Plan days for each grade to participate so they all feel a sense of ownership toward the trail."

She also recommends including teachers, parents or the PTA.

Nature trails vary in size and scope.

"They aren't just trails through the woods. They have learning places on them," Gaasch said. "They have a place where there is a dead tree and you look for birds, or a stream where you can look for animal tracks. They have purpose. They're not just winding trails."

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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