Connecting with Nature in School Neighborhoods

Written by: Corey Chan

“Children come alive by being outdoors. It awakens their minds, centers their hearts, and gives them depth of soul. It’s not an abandonment of academic work but rather a help to it.” 

-Ainsley Arment, Author of Call of the Wild + Free

On a clear winter day when most students were celebrating the final day before winter break with indoor classroom parties, Ms. Rugamas and her fifth grade students, from Ford Elementary School in Richmond, were instead bursting with excitement for their walking field trip to nearby Wildcat Creek. After two hands-on watershed science lessons with KIDS for the BAY Educator Yvette Diaz Samayoa, the students were ready to put their knowledge to work and assume their roles and responsibilities as young environmentalists and Watershed Rangers in their community. 

The opportunity for many classes to leave their school campuses and spend time outside has been heavily restricted for almost two years. This has contributed to a disconnect between school students and their local environment and community, as well as a decline in their overall health. Research has shown that during the pandemic connecting with nature helped many people by reducing overall stress levels and providing a sense of connection in a world where connecting with others became much more difficult (Mental Health Foundation, 2021). This connection has been shown to grow deeper when being taught or guided in how to notice and connect with nature, a key component of all KIDS for the BAY programs. 

Ms. Yvette, who also grew up in the Richmond/San Pablo area, guided her students through a series of activities, with a goal of creating a sense of place and connection to their surroundings and community. Students felt pride and ownership as they walked their neighborhood streets and the Wildcat Creek pathway, observing the nature around them. By connecting with nature, people feel better mentally and physically. They are also more likely to behave in ways which promote overall environmental health, like recycling, composting or cleaning up trash. (University of Plymouth, 2020). This connection was witnessed every time Ms. Yvette looked back at the student environmentalists; they were thoroughly engaged in studying signs of nature, and kept a close eye out for any trash that they could pick up (with tongs and reusable bags) to help keep their local watershed clean and healthy.

At the creek, Ms. Yvette explained to the students that this section of Wildcat Creek was the site of a recent restoration project in their own watershed. A student named Marlon noticed Ms. Yvette’s wagon of supplies was near a small plant and kindly pointed out that she should move her wagon to protect the plant! The students first began connecting with nature by listening silently to the sounds around them. “I heard the creek water flowing and some little birds chirping,” shared Nicolle. “I heard footsteps along the path behind me,” added Cesar. “It made me feel calm to stop and listen to nature for a while,” said Victoria. 

Continuing the walk along the creek, Ms. Yvette invited the students to become watershed detectives by making observations of healthy and unhealthy features of the habitat. Students noticed protected areas in the creek that created shelter for resident fish species. They debated if the visiting neighborhood cats were a sign of a healthy or unhealthy environment, and discussed the rain gardens near the creek. Sam was reminded of the difference between storm drains and the sewer system and said, “Water in our house drains gets cleaned, but water in storm drains doesn’t get cleaned and goes to the creek and the bay.” Students could easily see the drain from the rain garden emptying directly into the creek, where plastic trash and other items lined the creek edge. This connection helped all the students all feel a greater responsibility for keeping their watershed free of pollution. 

Students also studied the pathway of Wildcat Creek on a giant map painted on the ground near the creek. This helped them to visualize how this special creek begins in the Berkeley hills, flows through Tilden Park, Wildcat Canyon, the cities of Richmond and San Pablo and eventually flows into the larger San Francisco Bay estuary. 

On the way back to school, students walked more slowly and chatted quietly. Some were tired, having spent more time moving around outdoors than they have experienced in quite a while due to Covid-19 restrictions. “Thank you for such a great morning! The students really enjoyed being outside in their community together as a class,” shared Mr. Philipp Narag, one of the parent chaperones. The other chaperones all agreed how important this local field trip was, and that all involved, including students, chaperones, and their shared watershed, benefitted so much from this fun, educational, outdoor, nature-based experience! 

KIDS for the BAY