For many of my students, a trip to Sheldon is not only their ﬁrst time away from home but also their ﬁrst time outside the city. Some are so excited that they begin right away taking pictures to capture every minute of the trip, using up all their ﬁlm by the time we get to Sheldon. Many are shocked to ﬁnd they’ll be spending three days without access to telephones, television, video games or the Internet!
Upon arrival at Sheldon the immediate surroundings and the displays of wildlife and artifacts quickly awaken students’ interest and awareness of the environment. Students learn about responsibility, sharing, management, and civics. Individual responsibilities include making beds and cleaning the main building. Group responsibilities include setting and clearing the table. After a meal students carefully measure the compost, recycling, and garbage: their challenge is to create less garbage than groups that have come before.
The farm and its animals are an integral part of the learning at Sheldon. Students learn to clean stalls and tend to livestock. They are often aghast that farm life involves shovelling animal waste but they get over the smells before long and really enjoy the physical work. Direct engagement with the environment and hands-on activities help students develop informed opinions, which in turn shape their attitudes and values.
An example of this is an activity called “Web of Life.” Students take on the role of an herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore. They must locate food and water sources, while at the same time avoid- ing natural enemies, disease, and disaster. (See the curriculum insert for a description of the game.) This activity provides students with an increased understanding of the food chain and of the interdependency of all living creatures.
Outdoor learning is not just for students; teachers also beneﬁt. Tom Puk, a professor at Lakehead University, conducted a study that showed 71 percent of Ontario elementary school teachers believed their students were ecologically illiterate. About one third of teachers said they themselves did not know enough about ecology and almost all wanted more professional development in the area.5
Because onsite experts lead most of the programs at the Sheldon Centre, classroom teachers get the time to step back and observe. I’ve observed my students at length while learning what they learn. I’ve also participated in such activities as crossing a cable bridge with them. It’s been my experience that students are thrilled to see their teacher outside the regular classroom, learning and doing the same things they are.