Frick Park Program Nurtures a Love of Nature

You might not have realized it when you were younger, but every time you explored a local creek, played Capture the Flag with neighbors, or caught fireflies on a sticky summer night—it wasn’t just all fun and games. Those outdoor activities were actually boosting your brain power, building character, and strengthening your growing body (skinned knees and all).
Research confirms it: Outdoor play in nature has a multitude of long-term benefits for children. It fosters a sense of wonder; it reduces stress; it supports social and emotional development. So how does Ellis make sure that students reap those same rewards, and not just during recess? One example is the grade 1 class’ participation in the Habitat Explorers program at Frick Park. This dynamic program introduces first grade students to Pittsburgh’s indigenous plant and animal communities, exposes them to experiential learning outside of the classroom, and ensures that girls experience the many benefits that come from being in the outdoors. 

Three times a year, first grade students pull on their coats and boots and venture to Frick Park to observe the changing seasons within the meadow, woodland, and stream habitats. Via guided and independent investigation, Ellis girls learn about Western Pennsylvania biomes, native plants and animals, and the impact humans have on these environments. Armed with a magnifying glass and their sense of curiosity, students build their observation and scientific inquiry skills as they explore the park, its plants, and its creatures. They use their senses—they listen to the sounds of the stream; they collect samples from the meadow; they touch rocks, trees, plants, and bugs. 

“We emphasize careful exploration with respect to the home of the living organisms,” shared Amber Stacey, a Naturalist Educator with the Habitat Explorers Program who works with the first grade class. “This includes taking a step back and saying ‘hmm…interesting’ when encountering something that seems strange or makes them feel uncomfortable as an alternative to saying it is gross. Changing the framing of how they approach something that appears different provides an invitation to learn and understand why something looks the way it does or behaves the way it does.”

As their understanding of the habitat deepens, first grade students participate in two stewardship projects to foster their budding appreciation for the local green space. In the fall, students make seed balls and joyfully launch them into Frick Park’s meadow to ensure a variety of plants continue to thrive there for next year’s Ellis explorers. Next, students make bird feeders out of stale bagels, shortening, and seeds to feed the birds that stay put for the winter. Through these hands-on projects, Ellis girls not only learn how to improve habitat health, they learn the value of their local parks and what it means to be a conscious community member.

“The girls are learning a lot of small ways they can care for the planet,” shared Kim Mechling, Lower School Science Teacher. “They’re excited—they want to be involved and help make the park even better. We’ll hear from the girls that they went to Frick Park over the weekend with their family and taught them something they’ve learned. It’s great to hear that they are sharing their newfound knowledge outside of school too.”

Back at Ellis, Grade 1 Teachers Betsy Gianakas and Caroline Lynett along with Ms. Mechling enrich the girls’ experiences at Frick Park by teaching lessons that are connected to what they've learned in the Habitat Explorers Program. In language arts, students are tasked with writing an original story, “Me in the Meadow,” in which they compare themselves to an animal using figurative and descriptive language. During STEM class, students compare and contrast the similarities and differences between Western Pennsylvania woodland habitats and the rainforest. 

By connecting what their students are learning at Frick Park to what they’re teaching in the classroom, Lower School teachers are creating dynamic opportunities for interdisciplinary, multi-sensory learning. Their students are learning what it means to research, reflect, ask questions, and lend a hand, while also gaining greater respect for nature, their local parks, and their community. 

So next time your daughter asks you to join her to play in the fresh air, grab your coat and head outdoors hand-in-hand—chances are you’ll both learn something and, of course, have some fun too. 
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