When the Manternach kids talk about the outdoor education trips they’ve taken, their eyes sparkle. They incite and interrupt each other in their excitement to share their stories.
“You get to do EVERYTHING. We explored every inch of that place,” said 14-year-old Nathaniel about his trip to the Ozark Mountains back in the fourth grade.
His twin brother, Patrick, touts the friendships he’s made during the four different excursions he’s gone on. “Not all of it is learning. You meet kids from other schools. It’s easy making friends there. You build these bonds that are unbreakable,” he said.
Younger sister Madeline, age 11, has been on two of the four Trek and Travel trips that are offered through Parkway-Rockwood Community Ed, most of which are open to students anywhere, not just those in the Parkway and Rockwood school districts. Some of Madeline’s favorite experiences have been going on a hike by herself (with chaperones not too far off), sticking her head in a waterfall, observing wild turkeys and licking trees.
Wait, licking trees?
Madeline slowed down long enough to patiently explain that during this lesson the kids closed their eyes and completely experienced a tree — how it smelled, how it felt and, yes, how it tasted. Then, they were moved away from the trees and spun around several times. They opened their eyes and had to locate the tree they had each gotten to know. She found hers with no problem.
The Manternach kids are among more than 5,700 students in the St. Louis area who have participated in the Trek and Travel experiential learning program in the last five years. Kevin Zimmer, who manages the program, works closely with district science teachers to develop curriculum for each trip that ties to the learning objectives for that age group. For example, the fourth-grade weekend trip to the Ozarks focuses on geology, reinforcing what students are learning in class that year.
“The kids learn about how the Ozark Mountains formed and evolved. We visit Johnson Shut-Ins and places not as well-known, like the Millstream Garden Conservation Area,” said Zimmer. “We get our feet wet, our hands dirty. We have fun. But we also learn.”
While the fourth-grade trip requires a parent or guardian to accompany each child, the other trips are off-limits to parents. Instead, Zimmer brings along science and physical education teachers as well as other teachers as chaperones. Fifth graders (Rockwood students only) travel to the Smoky Mountains for four days, sixth through eighth graders visit the Great Lakes for a week, and students entering ninth and tenth grades head to the Atlantic Coast for a week. The latter two trips are in the summer.
“One of the science teachers was begging me to add a marine science trip, so we just added the Atlantic Coastal trip this year,” Zimmer said.
The Manternach twins were on that trip and had fun catching blue crabs, jellyfish and shrimp in nets. They picked through the seaweed and algae to pull out the different organisms and used classification books to identify them. They also saw thousands of fiddler crabs scurrying into holes and studied manta shrimp that had an appendage that looked like a fist, according to Patrick. “It would coil up and punch,” Nathaniel cut in. “It has the force of a 22-caliber bullet, which is cool.”
On her trip to the Great Lakes, Madeline also got a chance to identify organisms in the water. “We got in the river. It was freezing cold, but you didn’t care. We measured the water temperature, and they gave us buckets [to collect organisms].” She said they looked at samples from the water under a microscope and tried to identify them using classification sheets. She remembers that one organism was a circle that looked like it had the number 5 on it.
Parents Dana and Chuck Manternach attended the fourth-grade trip with their twin boys and said it was a great experience. Plus, they got to see how well the staff looked after the kids. This increased the Manternachs’ confidence that their children would do well on the non-parent trips.
“It’s amazing how different they look when they come back [from each trip],” Dana said. “They look so much older. All of these trips help prepare them for the real world.”
“They’re learning how to respect things around them,” Chuck said. “That makes it easier to respect themselves and others. There’s only one Earth. We’re all sharing it, and we all have to take care of it.”
A Packed Schedule
From ziplining, rock climbing and canoeing, to checking out wetlands and marine life, the kids participating in the Trek and Travel program stay busy and are always learning, said Zimmer.
The focus is on experiential learning and provides a connection between the trip experience and lessons in the classroom. “Hands-on makes it interesting,” said Patrick. “Most kids my age prefer that rather than worksheets.”
The Great Lakes trip features lessons on farming, allowing students to harvest food for the dining hall. They also re-enact how French explorers lived, games they played and what they ate. Participants on the Atlantic Coastal trip see a sunrise on the beach — for many it’s their first sunrise experience. Games and campfire songs are part of the mix on all of the trips, just like at summer camp.
But, unlike summer camp, students stay in lodges or facilities rather than in tents or cabins. “It’s comfort camping,” said Zimmer. “We’ve found we can draw a greater number of people to experience the outdoors if we offer a comfortable environment [for sleeping].”
Parents who are considering sending their children on the Parkway-Rockwood program can rest assured that safety is a big priority for the staff. All of the destinations have wilderness first responders on site, and every instructor is trained in CPR and first aid, says Zimmer. “We take a nurse along, as well, for medicine distribution mainly but also to check scratches and bug bites,” he added.
Tangible, Not Virtual
Connecting with nature requires disconnecting from devices, said Zimmer. During trips, kids can only use their cell phones and mobile devices on the bus and in the evenings for a half-hour. Anxious parents can follow the group’s activities on Twitter and Facebook.
The Manternachs didn’t seem to have a problem with that. “Ninety-nine percent of those thirty minutes we were talking to our parents. It felt really good to be without your cell phone,” said Patrick.
Madeline agrees. “At first, people worried they’d miss everything that was happening [without their electronics],” she said. “But when you’re there, you just want to be outside. We always had an hour to rest every day, but nobody rested. We did the rope swing or went on hikes instead.”
Zimmer says interest in the Trek and Travel program continues to grow. “I’m surprised how many kids are interested in the sciences and want to learn how to be a scientist,” he said. “On the Atlantic Coast trip, twenty-five of the thirty students were girls.
“The kids appreciate the mixture of fun and education,” added Zimmer. “It’s real and tangible, not virtual reality.”
Author: Terri Waters is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. She enjoys exploring hiking and biking trails and likes the camaraderie of organized rides as well.