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Outdoor Education: Habitats, Goats, and Bird Feeding

Grace Shackman

During the warm months of the pandemic, my husband and I took walks in different neighborhoods, often parking in the empty lots next to schools. We noticed that many had nature areas at the edge of their grounds. My interest piqued, I began looking into it and discovered that the Ann Arbor Public Schools were pathfinders in outdoor education--and that much of their success depended on citizen activists who saved and maintained these areas.

The outdoor education program started in 1959 as a result of lobbying by members of the Audubon Society. Bill Stapp, an Audubon member who was a teacher in the school system, was assigned to set up a program.

At first students took field trips to Eberwhite Woods, which had been donated to the school system by the U-M when encroaching housing development made it unsuitable for biological experiments. A second nature area, Pioneer Woods, was added in 1962 after a campaign by naturalists in the community. Stapp organized students and volunteers to create trails, restore brush piles for feeding stations and dens, clean two ponds, and clear out trash. In 1991, Pioneer biology teacher John Russell, a passionate defender of the environment, did a prairie restoration on the southeast side of the school. He did a controlled burn then planted prairie grasses and wildflowers.

Citizens helped save two more natural areas in 1964. When a bulldozer showed up to clear the understory in the woods next to Haisley School, a neighbor ran out to stop the work. Haisley principal Louise Ritsema was called to the site, and the woods she saved are now named for her. A similar showdown happened at Hollywood Park, next to Abbot School.

When Thurston School was built a few years later, neighbors created a nature area there, which they have maintained ever since. This year, when they were unable to have a safe work day because of the pandemic, outside contractors were brought in: a group of goats. After the goats ate most of the weeds, the job was finished with a controlled burn.

Stapp left after four years to teach at U-M but kept his passionate advocacy for outdoor education. His successor, Bill Browning, stayed on the job for thirty years and then spent twenty years of his retirement working as a volunteer. One of Browning's programs, bird feeding at Kensington Metropark, was my children's favorite activity. One day when Josh was in first grade, he came home excited about that trip and suggested we take three-year-old Leah there. It had been a long winter, so the birds flew in a steady stream, scooping down to take the birdseed, which caused Josh and Leah to laugh with joy.

The country's growing environmental consciousness culminated in the first Earth Day in April, 1970. Russell was one of the main organizers of a teach-in at U-M which got national attention. By the end of the year, the EPA had been founded and much pathfinding environmental legislation passed.

Also that year, the twenty-five-acre Mitchell-Scarlett woods was added to the list of nature areas. When neighbors learned that the school board was thinking of building a high school there, they waged a campaign to save the woods and raised money to dredge a pond. On our visit last summer, many ducks were happily swimming with their babies.

Dave Szczygiel, director of the program since 1997, added programs on gypsy moths and global warming and hands-on research activities such as having third-graders take pond samples to see how salamanders live. Every student in the school system gets to go on a field trip every year.

In 2019, the district doubled its outdoor education staff by hiring a second person. In addition to helping with field trips, Coert Ambrosino is working with Szczygiel to create an Outdoor Education Center at the former Freeman School in Dixboro. Skyline High school students have surveyed the plants and trees on the forty-acre site. Once the pandemic is over, Szczygiel and Ambrosino have ambitious plans for forest and prairie restoration, Project Grow gardens, composting, and stormwater retention. The former school itself will be used as a lab.

While we wait out the pandemic, we're seeing more people visiting Eberwhite Woods. And when spring comes, we look forward to seeing wildflower enthusiasts making their annual pilgrimages to see the hillside filled with trilliums.   

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Grace Shackman