Outdoor education at Big Hill

Students from Laura Bussie’s fourth-grade class from Yahara Elementary School spent time recently at the 63-acre Big Hill Learning Center, at the conservancy just off Hwy. 19 in the Village of Windsor behind Custom Design Homes near Token Creek. Above: Students look through view finders to see what it’s the pond water on the site. Below: Students use nets to sweep tall grass.

Everywhere students looked, there was something that drew their interest. That’s how it is with young kids experiencing nature.

“They were finding so many neat things on leaves, they just wouldn’t stop looking,” said Barb Bauer, a retired teacher who used to work at Windsor Elementary School. “They were questioning everything.”

An inquisitive group of third graders spent the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the 63-acre Big Hill Learning Center in the Token Creek Conservancy just off Hwy. 19 in the Village of Windsor behind Custom Design Homes near Token Creek.

Bauer and fellow former DeForest teachers Meg McLaughlin and Ann Brown led the students on a nature experience they won’t soon forget. Among their findings was coyote skat. Sue Brockel, who is retired from teaching at Morrisonville Elementary, is also part of this year’s team.

The three retired educators are conducting learning activities for DeForest Area School District elementary students at Big Hill this fall for students in grades 1-4.

“We want kids to be good stewards of the land … to have an appreciation for nature and trees,” said Bauer.

McLaughlin is a retired high school science teacher who is coordinating the Big Hill activities this year. This is her third year with the program.

“We keep them moving,” said McLaughlin, who credited the administration, teachers and school secretaries with working with schedules to allow visits to Big Hill and bus drivers who provide the transportation. “It’s a huge undertaking with everything involved.”

Brown has enjoyed reconnecting with kids.

“I like nature anyway, so it’s fun coming out here,” said Brown.

Since 2004, Big Hill has been a bona fide Wisconsin School Forest, with its diverse plant and animal communities and habitat. It has wetland, with a nearby pond, as well as prairie, oak savanna and woodland. Students get to visit different habitat, including prairie, a pond and forest.

Going back to survey records of 1834, they show an area with a sparsely timbered rolling prairie. Native Americans are thought to have used it as a camp or lookout and during the Civil War, the place was used for target practice.

It was established as a nature preserve and environmental learning center for local schools and the community in the 1990s by Cecile and Bernadine Smith and Fred and Helen Chase. The back part of the land is farmed by a local farmer, and paths are currently mowed by Matt Feldman.

Students from the DeForest schools have been going to Big Hill for 20 years. The program was started by Steve and Sandy Kahl. Both are retired DeForest educators. Tim Hopping helped with the transition when the Kahls stepped aside. This year, however, he is doing a long-term substitute assignment at Yahara Elementary.

When the place was designated as a Wisconsin School Forest, educators in the district had to write a total curriculum for use at the site. Accessibility was a key component. They wanted to make sure every student in grades 1-4 was able to visit the place. High school conservation and agriculture classes are also held there.

On the rare occasions when the weather doesn’t cooperate for outdoor visits, the teachers take the curriculum indoors, with pond samples, insects and other material for kids to marvel at.

At the site, there is a pavilion. High schoolers built the benches inside, and a tech class started constructing the shelter, which was eventually finished by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Big Hill’s proximity to schools makes it handy for outdoor educational activities.

Tree identification and soil analysis are just a few that are available for students. They can see the difference between a walnut and a hickory nut and can view larvae. Walking around, kids can find frogs and grasshoppers. Crayfish are sometimes pulled from the pond, as are tadpoles.

“It’s funny, because kids will come in and say, ‘Ew, ew” and by the end, they’ll be saying, ‘Let me hold it,’” said McLaughlin. “They learn they don’t have to be afraid of those things.”

The students are enthusiastic. Third grader Bella Dolphin said she was able to look at cicada skin. Brayden Thielbar enjoyed finding hickory seeds, nuts and shells and said he found them fascinating. A Monarch butterfly landed on both Emily Blader and Thielbar, and they learned about milkweed. Dorian Kaney and Nolan Knetter said they saw a really long hornet that was orange, yellow and black.

Mostly, they work in small groups for about two hours at a time. It’s a rotating curriculum, as second graders might study animals one year and then plants the next, before returning to animals as fourth graders. Trips are scheduled through are according to teachers’ schedules. They usually have a three- to four-week period to get all the trips in.

“We couldn’t do it with the coordination of everybody,” said McLaughlin.

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