Wild things, you make their hearts sing


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Elementary students watched in awe as Ed Saehler and Meredith Caskey held a red-tailed hawk and lifted open its right wing.

It was Day Three of School of the Wild, a weeklong nature program, for the sixth-grade class from Wickham Elementary. But students were as excited as if it was day one.

“I’m not really outdoorsy but School of the Wild is fun,” sixth-grader Greer Hancock said.

Students sat quietly and listened as Saehler, environmental-education coordinator, and Caskey, program assistant, explained the hawk’s features and living habits. Fifteen minutes later, they were running and laughing during lunch time.

School of the Wild began 11 years ago and involves 22 elementary schools; classes take place between Labor Day and mid-November. The program, run by UI Recreational Services and staffed by its employees — including some UI students — aims to educate youth about the Iowa ecosystem.

The class was split up into five smaller groups that explored a different aspect of nature each day over a school week. Students experienced wetlands, woodlands, prairies, birds, and a survival and outdoor hike.

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One group of 12 studied Iowa’s plant life with program assistant Jason Jensen. Students tasted apples, snap beans, and lemon balm, while learning about the plants’ many uses. A seasonal garden provided fully grown vegetation planted by a previous School of the Wild class in the spring.

Jensen also explained the importance of trees to the eager students.

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago,” he said.

Another group of students learned about birds and bird banding. Instructors set up extremely light nylon mist nets to catch songbirds without harm.

Soon, a white-breasted nuthatch became caught in the net. Students watched intently as Caskey untangled the bird quickly and safely, placing a light-weight aluminum ring around its leg. She explained the habits of birds and how banding allows scientists to research migration patterns.

A healthier lifestyle is another benefit for students involved in outdoor activities, which School of the Wild promotes.

In a recent study, Kathleen Janz, a UI professor of the health and sport studies, found that less-active students are more likely to be overweight later in life.

“School of the Wild is doing wonderful stuff,” she said, and spending time outside as a child can create a norm for students to be outdoors and active.

Being outside near the wilderness allows students to actually see, touch, and feel the plants and animals, Caskey said.

“We can look at pictures in a book, but when we actually have them in our hands and share that with students,” Caskey said. “It opens up a whole new awareness about wild things.”

This awareness and appreciation of wildlife helps students realize the importance of ecosystems and the need to protect them, Caskey added.

School of the Wild allows students to get out of the classroom and learn new things in an active, hands-on manner. Instructors and students are equally excited about the program.

“It’s great,” Saehler said. “It’s awesome what we have here.”

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