After walking the three-quarter-mile nature trail behind McBride Elementary School Wednesday, 11-year-old Bryona Burga summed up the experience — “really interesting and really realistic.”
“I never knew trees could grow so tall. Some trees I never knew existed. It was amazing,” said the fourth-grader, who spotted a yellow-bellied sapsucker in flight and several woodpecker marks in the trees. “You could see what it really looks like and all the patterns If you lived somewhere else you couldn’t see that.”
Bryona walked the trail with 50 classmates from Loyd Elementary School, each carrying a guidebook to identify the native trees. The field trip was part of Earth Week, a five-day event for third- through fifth-graders focusing on environmental stewardship.
The team from the post Environmental Management Division, which led the program, brought the words: Earth Week, down to the kids’ level. They made it relevant by scaling the world’s environment to the students’ backyard: Fort Benning.
Activities used examples unique to post, said Jean Carey, DoDEA Americas Area Schools instructional systems specialist.
“It’s not something that’s ‘out there.’ It’s their home. It’s real,” she said. “It’s inherent for these students to be able to connect the learning with what they already know, with where they live. They can understand the environment they see on a daily basis.”
In one of the activities, a coloring book about pollution prevention, third-graders met Ricky the River Otter. There’s no real otter on post named Ricky — but there could be.
“Ricky comes out a drainpipe in the Upatoi Creek, which runs through the installation, and he meets the members of the environmental management team,” said Tannis Danley, environmental compliance analyst for EMD. “They explain to him the things they do to protect his habitat, so Ricky feels real good about living on the Chattahoochee River.”
The hands-on activities and real-world examples reinforce the theme of environmental responsibility, said John Brent, EMD chief.
“As we have developed, we’ve been separated from the landscape,” he said. “Very few children really understand our relationship with the earth. If you ask a child some time where the food they eat comes from, they’ll tell you — many of them — from the grocery store.
“We need to make sure the children understand this relationship and how important it is to our health and our well-being. That’s why this is tactile. Being able to take them out and touch and see things is extremely important.”
Austin Mergele, 11, said he learned that trees could grow to 150 feet, what poison ivy looks like and the kinds of animals that live in and around trees.
“It was awesome because we got to be out in the wilderness for a long time,” he said of the nature trail. “I’ve never been in the forest. I think I saw a deer running by.”Austin said Earth Week gave him a chance “to take care of the earth.”
“I think protecting the environment is a pretty good thing,” he said. “It’s what God gives us. We need to respect it.”
Fort Benning is a great place for these types of environmental studies, Brent said, since it’s home to several rare or threatened species of plants and animals.
“Benning is special,” he said. “It is an island in ecological diversity and a good example of how you can balance a land use (and) sustain the environment at the same time.”
That balance was reinforced with presentations and activities that included green ways to interact with the environment.
“In the trail, there is a point where if you sit really still you can hear both the traffic and the birds,” Carey said. “The point is made then by the team that it is very easy to coexist with nature in an urban environment, but that it takes pre-planning and care of the environment.”
The classes focused on different aspects of the environment that lined up with science standards for their grade level. Third-graders dealt with ecology, the food web, habitat and pollution. Fourth-graders learned about water, climate, meteorology, native tree species and the scientific naming system. Fifth-graders were introduced to practical applications of environmental protection, such as the Gulf Coast oil spill.
The weeklong educational program, which started on post in the 1990s, has grown in recent years and now includes all six post elementary schools.
“It has started conversations in the classroom that are healthy and investigative — the what-if questions,” Carey said. “That’s a sign of success.”
Danley said they also cover what students can do to make a difference in their environment.
“They have some simple things they can do every day: turn off the faucet while I brush my teeth, turn off the light when I leave my room, recycle,” she said. “I think it is this generation coming up now that is the generation that is going to make a difference, have a big impact on our environment because it is becoming part of their life.”
Faith Middle School will hold its annual Earth Day celebration April 21. The fair will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.