Learning on the Land: Connecting a New Generation to Conserved Land

Two girls leading calf

Morning chores start at 7:30 at the Farms for City Kids program at Spring Brook Farm in Reading.

The kids on “team 3” from East Harlem’s Central Park East 2 elementary school clump in the corner of a barn while herd manager Sarah Lewis shows them how to unclip a cow from her stall. At first, the kids eye the large but gentle animals tentatively, then with increasing confidence set to work, and one by one the cows start ambling out of the barn. Then it’s on to putting fresh hay in the troughs.

“It’s like unwrapping a cinnamon bun,” says farm educator Sue Lenfest, about the round bale. She explains that the hay is the farm’s second cutting and that good hay is important for great milk.

Spring Brook Farm is known for its award-winning cheeses and its free, farm-based education program that brings kids from urban schools, predominantly those serving low-income families, for a week to work, learn, and play.

The majority of the 1,000-acre farm was conserved with VLT and has been used to educate children since the 1990s. Kids rotate through farm chores in the barns and vegetable garden, make apple cider or maple syrup in season, help brine and rotate cheeses in the cheese house. Chores are folded seamlessly into hands-on lessons in math and science.

“I love the joy they have in it,” said Sue. “It’s all new to them. They love the animals. They feel important working at something and seeing the results. And they love being part of the farm, the cheese house, the woods. It’s full circle. They see life cycles all the time, and I think they feel a part of that life cycle.”

Ask the kids on team 3 what they love best and you’ll get one answer: cows.

“I really like taking care of the calves,” said Jayda, 11. “They’re so small and it’s just fun taking care of something that’s smaller than you are.”

Across Vermont, schools, towns, community groups, and larger nonprofits are using conserved lands for education: building self-confidence and teamwork; doing hands-on science and nature study; providing training in sugaring, forestry, and agriculture; and connecting a new generation to the land.

“As adults, I think many of us can look back and remember how time spent outside shaped us,” said Tracy Zschau, VLT’s conservation director. “Now, with all the distractions in kids’ lives, it’s more important than ever to give them opportunities to build these experiences. Part of VLT’s mission is to foster connection to land. Starting early, with our children, seems like a worthwhile investment.”

Engaging in hands-on learning in Newport

“Bluffside Farm has really opened doors for our students and our staff to think outside the box in terms of how learning can and could happen,” said North Country Union High School Principal Chris Miller.

A 15-minute walk gets students out of the classroom and onto the fields, woods, and shoreline of this 129-acre former dairy farm on the shores of Lake Memphremagog in Newport. VLT bought the farm when it was set to go to auction; since then, it’s been exploring options for the land with the community. Chris started as principal in 2017 and almost immediately partnered with VLT on ways his students could use the farm for hands-on learning.

This past year, an environmental science class studied the source and movement patterns of trash washing up on Bluffside’s shoreline. The school’s alternative programs combined science and community service, working on tree identification and invasive species projects. Forestry students at the North Country Career Center trekked the woods to look for emerald ash borers, conduct soil analyses, and take stock of the farm’s sugarbush.

Chris said he loves the way Bluffside opens the “classroom to this beautiful farm setting,” builds teamwork, and challenges students “to think about solving real world problems.”

Discovering “a different kind of awareness” in Jericho

When parent volunteers and educators at Jericho Elementary School decided to bring nature education outside, they headed to nearby Mills Riverside Park: 216 acres of open meadows, trails, and wooded hillsides along the Browns River that were protected by the Jericho Underhill Land Trust and VLT in the late 1990s.

Using the Four Winds curriculum, kids studied leaves, animal camouflage and coloration, bird nests, and amphibians. “It was really amazing to watch the students combine learning and play,” said VLT conservation ecologist Allaire Diamond, who is also a Four Winds volunteer. “There’s a different kind of awareness of the world when you’re outside, a different openness for learning.”

During their amphibian day, students took in a puppet show about amphibian life cycles, learned frog calls, and used them in a game to try and find a ‘mate’ of the same species.

The highlight, of course, was the frog pond. “When a student’s actually holding a frog there’s nothing that really can replace that in terms of ‘I’m holding this living thing and it’s moving in my hand’,” said Allaire.

children watching play outside

Fostering play . . . and stewardship in Marlboro

Once a year, everybody at Marlboro School heads to Hogback Mountain for a day of celebration.

VLT worked with the community during a multi-year effort that resulted in the purchase and conservation of 591 acres that had been put on the market. The property was bought by the Hogback Mountain Conservation Association, then turned over to the town. HMCA board member Carol Berner recalls that, at the time, “the question that was raised for me was: How will children who grow up in this community come to think of themselves as stewards who really love and care about this land because it’s theirs to protect, learn from, and enjoy?”

One of the first answers was Hogback Day, which brings Marlboro’s kindergarteners through eighth graders to the town forest for a day of discovery. Kids can choose from activities like making fairy houses, studying animal tracking, making and flying kites, or playing disc golf.

“The idea really is that every kid can choose a way that they want to connect,” Carol said.

While Hogback Day started as a community celebration, the mountain itself is now threaded throughout the school curriculum. Seventh and eighth graders document crayfish, caddisflies, and other species that rely on streams; fifth and sixth graders create field guides; third and fourth graders each adopt a tree and study it throughout the school year; and first and second graders go on hikes.

Carol reflected: “I think it’s through education in the place that they grow up, that children are most likely to form a deep connection and a caring about nature that they will bring with them not only into their studies, but into wherever and whatever they do for the rest of their lives.”

This article appeared in our Fall 2018 membership newsletter. Story written by Gaen Murphree. Photo of kids and cows courtesy of Spring Brook Farm. Photo of amphibian play courtesy of Jericho Four Winds program.