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Nature: the Principal Teacher

-written by Kayla Rizzo, Environmental Educator



Standing among the pines, we were enveloped by the vast open space around us. Linear trunks plot a grid of our surroundings. As the wind blows in, the treetops dance in the gray sky above us, shaking down small droplets of rain. Jon speaks up, just barely audible above the swaying limbs: “Look up. Look around us. Think about the place we’re in.”

  In moments like these, it seems the job of a teacher goes far beyond the classroom– beyond desks, beyond textbooks– and drifts somewhere around the deeper, more meaningful parts of life. When you are able to still a group of children and lead their the eyes, ears, and hearts to the (very real) magic of nature, it seems any lesson is achievable.

I began shadowing Earth Spirit programs in the spring, also known as the maple syrup season. Even with snow still dappled on the muddy ground, the visiting elementary school children were fearlessly trekking through the mud, hugging giant beech trees and watching intently as Scott, Jon and Sandy used indigenous methods to create maple syrup. The students left with big smiles and a better understanding of the natural world they’re surrounded by.


I began teaching in the classroom for Earth Spirit’s Earth Day programs. I introduced the students to birds in their area and hiked around their schoolyard to show them the amazing things taking place in their own backyard. After that, I joined the overnight camp programs, which opened up multiple days for exploring, hiking, salamander catching, and both teaching and learning.

The overnight trips allow all of our lessons to flourish and come alive in a very real way and they are, admittedly, my favorite programs to teach. As instructors, we are given more time to explore different topics– creek hikes and stream ecology, shelter building and survival techniques, forest ecology and human intervention– all while taking account of the local flora and fauna that pass by. The students, right off the bus, are investing more of their time to being outdoors and enjoying the natural world. They look forward to swimming in creeks, having bonfires under the stars, and taking morning hikes through the dewy woods.

I am eagerly awaiting the fall, when schools start up again and I’m able to visit the classes I’ve seen this past spring. Forming a continuous relationship is invaluable for these students and reinforces the connection to their science curriculum. When we arrive at a school, I can see the excitement on student’s faces as they pass us by in the hall; they know when we’re around, their day is going to be very different and very fun. With each program they begin to uncover nature’s mysteries, and it’s that enjoyment and surprise in their eyes that inspires my teaching.

Photos, top to bottom:


• Tuscarora kids hugging it out with the last council building of their native people. (Letchworth State Park)
• Tuscarora kids show off their nature art sculpture of a longhouse. (Camp Duffield, Sardinia)
• Park School kids checking out a pool filled with American Toad tadpoles. (Camp Duffield, Sardinia)
• Tuscarora kids celebrate as they win the fire building competition. (Letchworth State Park)