Laurie Santana’s fourth grade class knows the difference between a riffle beetle and a caddisfly, thanks in part to a “creepy crawly classification” class hosted by Rock Hill’s parks department.
The Northside Recreation Center was an educational playground this week for a few Mount Holly Elementary School classes learning about insects, water pollution and teamwork.
Ten-year-old Austin plopped himself down in front an insect diagram on Wednesday, saying that the out-of-class activity was a “relief” from a typical school day.
“It’s like the best thing ever,” he said confidently. “And we don’t have homework, because it’s Halloween.”
The city’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department offers environmental education classes that match curriculum requirements for grades kindergarten through high school.
The program is beneficial, Santana said, because it gives students a chance to leave their desks and still learn.
The Mount Holly fourth graders participating in the “creepy crawly classification” exercise and water pollution activity this week recently learned about animal behavior and the impact of humans on the environment in their classroom at school.
“We thought (the city program) would fit in perfectly with the unit we’re doing,” Santana said.
Activities range from kayaking on the Catawba River to teaching the science of motion to fifth graders, to kindergarteners studying the life cycle of butterflies and frogs.
This fall, the city has scheduled 30 class groups from nine Rock Hill and Fort Mill schools to participate.
Next year’s spring session is twice as crowded, with 65 environmental education classes scheduled planned. Over the nine weeks of programming in the spring, staff members will work with students from 14 different schools.
That growth means that four days a week next spring there will be an environmental class activity going on in at least one of Rock Hill’s parks or recreation centers.
One of the greatest appeals of the city classes is the affordability, Santana said: Bus transportation is the most expensive component because the class costs only $60 per group.
Learning locally outside the classroom is logistically easier and less expensive, she said, than long-distance trips teachers might want to take to places such as Williamsburg, Va.
She’d love to take her fourth-graders to visit colonial towns in New England and give them “a hands-on feel for history,” but at around $500 per child, it’s too expensive for many families to send children on that school trip.
American history “is one of the hardest subjects to teach in fourth grade because there’s so much material,” she said.
Giving the students that same hands-on learning experience through a local program, she said, can achieve just as much as an out-of-town trip.
The recent trip to Northside Recreation Center was a “field study,” which is more structured than just a “field trip,” Santana said.
Such trips “must be purposeful,” she said, “but there’s always room for fun.”
If talking about bugs and where they live wasn’t fun enough for the kids, climbing the rock wall at Northside certainly seemed to energize them. Two at a time, with the guidance of city workers, the students scaled the wall as the rest of their class cheered them on.
When one fourth-grader made it to the top and rang the bell, cheers erupted from the group along with encouragement to dangle mid-air on the rope before making it back down.
Austin and a few of the other 9- and 10-year-old students said the rock wall didn’t intimidate them. Classifying insects was a greater challenge, they said, because so many of the bugs looked alike.
Hope Matthews, the city’s environmental education coordinator, worked alongside the students on Wednesday, helping out with the finer details on how to spot a baby dragonfly or a gilled snail.
She’s one of five city employees who teach the classes Tuesday through Thursday and run educational camps during the summer.
The greatest challenge for her, she said, is to use the time with students wisely, because they usually come in with a lot of energy.
“They’re excited for all sorts of reasons,” she said.
Some of the students spend a lot of time outdoors on their own, she said, while others spend more time playing video games or using technology inside.
The challenge “is to understand how to connect with kids when there’s so many things that they can do these days,” she said.
Technology for entertainment or for educational purposes has it’s place, Matthews said.
“But we all have to learn how to balance these things in our lives.”
Anna Douglas 803-329-4068