My name is Molly Zegans and I am a Teacher Naturalist at Mass Audubon’s Boston Nature Center in Mattapan, MA. This winter we started offering a weekly program for homeschooled children ages 6 – 10. The group is designed to introduce the students to a classroom setting, as well as give them access to materials and tools that they may not experience in their homes. During the winter session we had 8 students participate, and we are still accepting additional registrations for the spring.
Our class is three hours long with about half of that spent on outdoor lessons. These include everything from a nature walk looking for signs of squirrels to a smelling experiment in our garden. As the weather warms up, we hope to bring the class outside for the majority of the program. During the winter session the class studied animal adaptations, focusing on animals that the students are likely to encounter in the city. These include wild turkeys, coyotes, rabbits, squirrels, and robins. We want the students to care and get excited about the animals they see every day as opposed to animals and environments that are inaccessible in the city. One of the biggest goals of the program is to have the students cultivate a personal connection to the nature found in the city.
Since the program is relatively new, we are still modifying the format to best suit this group of students. One of the biggest hurdles so far has been working with a wide range of ages and familiarity with a classroom setting. Some of the students have come right from nature preschool at the BNC while older students have had exposure to a more rigid classroom setting. So while some students are adjusting to a more structured environment, others are discarding some of the structures they have learned in traditional school.
It can be challenging to support students coming from so many different backgrounds, but this diversity in age and experience leads to a great success in the program: the amount of student to student teaching and sharing that occurs. Additionally, because the group is small, the students are able to communicate with each other and myself about their interests, which in turn allows me to organize the class around topics that they are already enthusiastic about. The sense of community and ownership over their learning that the students have cultivated are the greatest successes of the program so far, and I am looking forward to seeing how this group develops as the program continues.