It's been over sixty years since I attended an outdoor lab school. The week's experiences are still vividly imprinted on my mind and heart. They have influenced my life and career. Here are some fond memories taken from Chapter 5, "Outdoor Lab School: My Favorite Classroom" in my new book with Marilyn Saltzman, "Reflections, Learning by Doing":
"Pack up your jeans, jackets and hiking boots. Tomorrow you go to outdoor lab school, BJ" my mother instructed. "You will be learning in the outdoors for a whole week with other sixth graders. I know you'll love it."
I wasn't so sure I would love it. I had never been away from home for more than one night at a time. Sleepovers with my girlfriends seemed safer than spending a whole week away from home with my classmates. On the other hand, the thought of being outside and "in school" for an entire week sounded exciting.
I was awake for most of the night in anticipation of my new adventure. Early the next morning, I joined twenty-four other sixth graders as we loaded our suitcases and backpacks onto the school bus. In no time, we were on our way to Versailles, Indiana, and the outdoor lab school.
After we arrived in our new home and got settled, our teacher calls out, "Grab your backpacks and jackets. It's time for class to begin."
All of us promptly followed directions and headed into the meadow near our dorm. We had seen a heard of deer munching on the grass when our school bus arrived. We were disappointed to discover the deer were no longer there.
"Here's their trail. I think if we follow it into the woods, we may find them," our teacher said encouragingly. "Look for signs that will tell us where they are."
"What are these little brown marbles?" I inquired. "There are so many piles of them where the deer have been eating the grass."
Being a skilled outdoor educator, our teacher began asking us questions rather than giving us answers. "Tell me about these 'marbles.' What do they smell like? How many are in a pile? How many piles are there?"
"Ick!! I don't want to smell them. They are dirty. They are deer poop," one of my classmates yelled. I heard many giggles and snickers all around me.
The teacher's questions were an inviting challenge for me. Before long, I had counted twenty piles of "marbles" with approximately fifteen in each pile. I had meticulously done the math without much effort. In addition, I discovered they smelled like dead grass and actually had blades of grass in them.
"I think there were twenty deer here eating the grass," I reported with confidence.
"That's a good estimate, B.J. The lab school principal has observed as many as thirty deer in this herd. Maybe the entire group wasn't here this morning. You can see where the deer trail enters the woods. Why don't you lead the way?"
I felt good that the teacher liked my answers and had chosen me to lead the class. I began feeling more excited about the approaching week.
The day ended all too soon. At each bend in the trail, there was another captivating lesson to be learned. There was always something new to see, hear, smell, taste and feel. I had never had a school day pass so quickly.
"Lights out in five minutes," our saintly teacher warned.
As I lay in my upper bunk, after lights out, I felt a smile creep over my face. This is school, and it is actually interesting and fun! It's OK to move around, smell and examine deer droppings, hike among the tall maple trees, eat Indian food, hear birds singing, and explore to my heart's content. This is like learning in my favorite neighborhood woodlot. This is the way school should be all year round!
BJ Meadows with Marilyn Saltzman have recently published a book titled, "Reflections, Learning by Doing." It portrays the importance that the out-of-doors has played in BJ's life and emphasizes the value of children having rich experiences in nature. It is a very well written book with endorsements by Dr. Ann Brady, former Jeffco Area Supt., Harold Pratt, former Jeffco Science Coordinator and others.
For those of you who do not know BJ, she taught biology at Alameda High School before becoming the Environmental Education Coordinator for our school district and was very involved in supporting the Outdoor Lab Program. She was also instrumental in developing Day on the Prairie as well as programs with Jeffco Open Space such as Owl's Roost & Eagle's Nest. She later became an elementary principal continuing in retirement as a consultant, curriculum developer, writer and professional coach.