Those of us who love the outdoors don't need a reminder about why we are enamored—but for those who have not yet joined that parade, the words of naturalist Henry David Thoreau ring true: "We can never have enough of nature…in wilderness is the salvation of mankind."
Nearly two dozen acres of wooded Kalispell, Montana forest at the Creston National Fish Hatchery is now home to a unique concept known as a Nature Explore Classroom, a children's interpretive center, the only one of its kind housed at a national fish hatchery. The innovative outdoor classroom serves as a model to connect children with the natural world and engage youth in facilitating nature-based teaching, playing, and learning.
"Because we had a successful track record of working with youngsters via our tribal youth program, the Chief of Fisheries in our headquarters office in Washington, DC, Stuart Leon called and said, 'Have I got a deal for you.' It was a deal we couldn't turn down despite the extra work and commitment it would mean over the long term," says Creston National Fish Hatchery Manager Mark Maskill. "It was a life-changing decision for this facility because you don't just build a project like this and walk away. You have to commit, maintain, grow, and nurture it and we were willing to do so."
The Nature Explore Classroom at Creston was funded by a $29,000 grant from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Education and Outreach, and administered by the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. "There are 170 certified Nature Explore classrooms scattered across the country in diverse settings, all working toward providing a safe outdoor space where a connection and an interaction can be made with the natural world," said Nature Explore Outreach Director Susie Wirth.
Based on a cost-to-build/benefits-returned ratio, the classroom creation was a bargain because of donated materials and volunteer labor. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supports a variety of youth outreach efforts to instill in children a life-long sense of wonder, an appreciation of the environment, and a curiosity about nature," says National Conservation Training Center project manager Mary Danno. "This project further exemplifies the Department of the Interior's focus on the three Es: Engage, Educate, and Employ. We're making a difference in the lives of our youth."
Learning about nature in a natural environment is a tailor-made response to what child advocacy expert Richard Louv called 'nature-deficit' in his Last Child in the Woods book, a lack of nature in the lives of today's wired generation. Louv's contention is based on a growing body of knowledge indicating direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of both children and adults. "The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need," Louv proclaims in his book.
"We want to encourage children to put the electronics aside, get outside, and enjoy the natural world around them. With the help of a nature-based classroom they can build anything and be anything," says Creston Outdoor Education Coordinator Evie Bradley. "Adults will also experience the rich learning that takes place in a Nature Explore Classroom as we encourage creativity in a natural setting."
While outdoor classroom design principles are based on lots of research and field-testing to ensure things are developmentally appropriate, Creston National Fish Hatchery hit that mark — ironically in the shape of a fish!
"We took an under-used wooded area and built a multi-use pavilion next to a number of deer trails which were used as natural corridors to separate areas designed for music and movement or crawling and climbing," says Maskill. "Looking down on the conceptual blueprint, we said 'By golly, doesn't that look like the shape of a fish'…unintentional, but uncanny in its accuracy."
Included in the station stops are props children can use to let their imagination run wild. "Anything youngsters can be fascinated with," Bradley says. "We have deer antlers, willow baskets to collect items, magnifying glasses to examine the discoveries and log them in a journal, an art area with blocks where kids can put their math skills to work, easels for the artistically inclined and a wooden dance floor with a wooden marimba, slap drum, and rain sticks. When you play in nature, whole new worlds open up for you."
Although open to both young and the young-at-heart and open every day of the year for free visitation, "we tried to focus in on the third grade age group as our baseline," Maskill says. "We want teachers to bring their classes here with the hope that the kids will want to return with their parents and siblings and make it a follow-up family adventure."
Thirteen-year-old twins Jordan and Jaden Bermal of Big Fork, Montana were on hand at the open house last fall, accompanying grandfather Dave, the project supervisor who led the building effort that included Northwest Montana Native Youth Conservation Corps student carpenters from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes.
"There's lots of stuff for kids to do," says Jordan. "I ran around, danced on their dance floor, played music, and took lots of pictures." Adds sister Jaden: "There were lots of birds and friendly people everywhere." However both girls did admit the day's highlight for them was the free cookies and lemonade.
Even Denise Wagner, conservation education coordinator with the Service's Division of Fish and Aquatic Conservation got handed a hammer on her numerous site visits, becoming one of the willing participants with a tangible goal in mind. "With only two weeks to get the work completed, the YCC crew and everyone else involved worked hard preparing the area for the project. Everyone also laughed a lot, worked together as a team, and an amazing camaraderie emerged. At the end you could just tell every single person involved was very proud of a job well done."
"We want to be valued as a good community member," says Maskill. "The hatchery has always provided tours as a platform to talk about our conservation work: 'here's the fish, here's how we raise them.' The Nature Explore Classroom allows us to take what we've been doing many steps forward, it's outside the box for us. We can now tie what we do for fisheries conservation into the Nature Explore Classroom, and vice-versa. Providing a quality learning experience that provides a positive impact on young people's lives—that is very gratifying."