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Outside is the best place to teach a course on plants

Fifteen years ago when I was in high school, going outdoors for a class was unheard of. Athletic programs were conducted outdoors. Academics were conducted indoors. A field trip with the biology department provided the rare exception.

In the last few years Outward Bound types of programs have been developed within many local school systems. These programs usually have character building as the chief theme through either team or individual accomplishments. The vehicle for these accomplishments is still a program of developing athletic skills in what usually turns out to be a highly structured progression.

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But not all outdoor programs have to be "athletic." Last year I taught a voc-ed horticulture course to a group of teen-agers in a life skills program. There was a great deal of freedom given for curriculum development.

And, we were outside in all but the most uncomfortable weather. Every facet of nature affects plant growth. As we planted our nursery stock, we discussed the insects that crawled up to, or flew over, our saplings.

Entomology, the study of insects, developed into a minicourse within the first month. The effects of the other animals on the plants, and the plants on each other, naturally developed into a series of outdoor classes on ecology.

We could have spent the whole year studying horticulture and the other related sciences without a break. But there were too many lessons around us to be so limited.

At one time we were clearing trails in a local park. The town reservoir was right at the base of this pine forest. We followed the course the water would have to follow down the hillside to the small lake.

Then a water department employee gave us a tour of the small pumping station, explaining the process of filtering and chemical treatments which the drinking water undergoes. The youngsters had a firsthand look at an interesting job and how man and nature are interlocked.

While landscaping near a New England stone wall, I pointed out that stone walls had been built by farmers back before the REvolution in the process of clearing land. Some of the fields nearby were going back to forest. Saplings crowded together in stiff competition for land and light.

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We talked about the history of the land sometimes developing from forest to field to town. Or perhaps from forest to field and back to forest.

We cleared land, made trails, planted ornamental trees, landscaped private homes. At the same time we talked about the history of the area and how we fit in. These youngsters could see that it all fit together and that they are a part of both nature and history.


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