Back to School Means Back to Nature
For teachers, the words “back to school” often conjure thoughts of lessons to plan, classrooms to decorate, and meetings to attend. But for the faculty of Hilltop Country Day School in Sparta, the start of this school year meant a day in the sunshine at Liberty Farm, the site of the largest sunflower maze on the east coast. Hosted by farmer and maze designer, Raj Sinha, the teachers of Hilltop were treated to a walk through the fields led by John Parke, recipient of the Environmental Educator of the year award. Parke of the New Jersey Audubon Society, lunch in a tent, and the opportunity to discuss their summer readings and plans to incorporate the lessons of nature in their daily classes.
According to the Children and Nature Network, “Spending time in nature can help children focus their attention, promote motivation to learn, and enhance creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.” At Hilltop, teachers have subscribed to this philosophy by maintaining and utilizing a vibrant outdoor classroom and continuing to learn about and preserve the environment with their students. For their summer reading, teachers focused on this theme with the poetry of Mary Oliver in Why I Wake Early and the research of Richard L
ouv in Last Child in the Woods. The day in the fields, surrounded by the sounds and sights of nature, was a perfect example of the inspiration, peace, and education one can find in a natural setting.
“Our sunflower field has hundreds of native pollinators such as butterflies, bees, and grasshoppers, and there is always something new to see and photograph,” said Sinha, and the enthusiasm of the field guide in identifying and explaining the thousands of interdependent plants, animals, insects, and birds to be found in this setting gave each of the teachers inspiration, as well as knowledge, to share with their students. “This was the best in-service since I’ve worked here,” said veteran science teacher Michael Umstead. The photos and comments of all of the teachers bore witness to the value of a day spent outdoors for their energy and professional development.
Math teacher Jane Chamberlain was particularly interested in the mathematical formulas found in nature. Sunflowers are a perfect example of the Fibonacci sequence of numbers in their natural design. Her first bulletin board of the school year features photographs of sunflowers to illustrate this concept. Teachers of history and geography learned about the history of plants brought to U.S. soil hundreds of years ago and the effects of these plants on the development of the landscape. Pokeberry bushes offered another history lesson. These native plants were first thought to be sources of food for the early settlers but later found to be poisonous and used strictly for dye.
As teachers summarized their day in a roundtable discussion, it was clear that this was no ordinary “back to school” event. Energized by the beauty of nature and the wonder of the world, Hilltop teachers are ready to start the school year with the focus and motivation found in our environment and fostered by their dedication to their students.