Nurturing by nature: Myers Elementary teacher leads first graders in litter cleanup effort
Plummer hopes to turn area on school grounds into outdoor classroom
BELLWOOD — A group of first graders, donning gloves and “trash grabbers,” spent a recent Friday afternoon in a wooded area near their school helping the environment — and having some fun along the way.
Fifteen students from Bellwood-Antis’ Myers Elementary School joined their teacher and a classroom aide in an effort to clean up the area that David Plummer hopes to turn into an outdoor classroom.
While cleaning up litter as part of a Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful project, they learned why litter pollution is bad, what types of things are safe for kids to pick up and the things they should leave alone and tell an adult about.
This wooded area is a passion project for Plummer, a first-grade teacher whose dream is to turn the space into an outdoor classroom where students can learn to love and care for the natural world.
Plummer said he discovered the hidden gem a couple of years ago and learned that although the school owned the property, there were no plans to use the approximately 2-3 acres of outdoor space.
“I love the outdoors,” Plummer said. “I spent a lot of time outdoors, and I feel like when you really love something, it’s so easy, so natural for me to teach it. And we have a nice space that I didn’t even realize that the school owned.”
The area is just a short walk from the school, near where Plummer, who grew up in the area, ran cross country.
“When I found out that the school owned the property a few years ago, I asked about using the space to take the kids out and explore.” Plummer said. “This is when the idea of the nature trail came to life.”
After checking out the space, he and his students went there for a walk. But, they noticed there was a lot of trash.
“I said, ‘Hey, this is something we could do — something we could clean up,'” Plummer recalled.
So the class grabbed some bags and collected as much trash as possible. They ended up with four or five bags full of trash, Plummer said.
Out of the classroom
Plummer said he tries to get the students outside — in addition to daily recesses — at least once a week.
Outside he conducts mini-lessons on tree and plant identification, as well as looks for traces of wildlife.
He has a vision for conservation and instills a love for the outdoors and environment in his students. He hopes to clean up the wooded area and trails his students love so dearly and create a natural learning center — the “Nature Trail.”
Plummer said teachers often want to take their students out of the classroom and into the outdoors to take a nature walk. They may have a book about the changing colors of the leaves and what better place to read about the changing colors than among them, he said. However, a “messy” space may deter the teachers.
If the area is cleaned up and maintained, he envisions “it being a place where we have a nice outdoor classroom, an observation deck,” he said.
During Oct. 22’s cleanup walk, most of Plummer’s students talked about seeing the changing leaves and types of plants in the woods.
The students found new discoveries and asked detailed questions about the world around them. Plummer, not missing a beat, had the answer to most of the student’s questions, often also quizzing them along the way.
The Sinking Valley resident incorporates a lot from the outdoors into the day-to-day activities in his classroom.
The class recently learned about squirrels and went outside to observe the animals and look for their dreys (nests). Plummer said the students then made their own dreys and displayed them in the class “museum.”
The museum is a space in the hallway outside the classroom where the students’ art and creations are shown to those who pass by, sparking conversations and additional learning opportunities.
Before COVID-19 shut everything down, Plummer said parents and friends would come into the school and the students served as “tour guides,” showing off their knowledge of the curriculum.
“The kids love it. It’s all kid-created, so it’s their space,” he said.
Student Tristan Cherry was excited to be outside and to look at nature. His classmate, Emma Williams, said she likes going out on walks with Plummer and her classmates.
“We get to see mushrooms and leaves and other stuff,” she said, before jetting off to pick up a nearby piece of trash.
The group collected three large trash bags worth of litter that Friday, picking up each piece with immeasurable excitement.
The outdoor space provides inspiration for the students and often leads to museum projects. Plummer said he tries to incorporate the outdoors into his classroom whenever possible.
“That’s what they love most and what I love most,” Plummer said. “So that’s kind of the drive for this new outdoor space.”
The outdoor classroom Plummer envisions would be a place where students and teachers interact with and learn about nature and the environment. He sees an area with distinct trails, planted food lots, an observation deck, a wildflower garden and eventually even a beehive.
Plummer said his plan is to get other teachers involved in the outdoor area, including those from the middle and high schools. He sees a collaboration opportunity with agriculture, technical and woodshop students, where the “big kids” can aid in maintaining the area while interacting and sharing their skills with the younger students.
“It’s so important to me to have these good relationships that you build,” Plummer said. “And I think a lot of the kids who have gone through my class really appreciate what we do with the outdoors.”
He hopes to get the community involved, too, and is looking for organizations that may want to connect with the school. He said the area would be a good opportunity with those in scouting or other service groups that need projects.
School club planned
Principal Matthew Stinson said the school is planning to offer a conservation club to students, starting with third and fourth graders. The club will start out for the older students, many of whom had Plummer in first grade and still visit the hallway to see what’s in the museum.
These older students would eventually mentor the younger students.
Conservation learning falls into the current curriculum with Next Generation Science Standards, and getting the students outside provides new learning opportunities, Stinson said.
“This is going to be their Earth, they are going to inherit this place,” Stinson said. “We want to promote positive ideas.”
He expects at least two-thirds of the almost 160 students to participate in the program once permission slips are returned. Stinson said many of those students have fun memories of time spent in Plummer’s class. Plummer has taught at Bellwood-Antis for 12 years, including seven in kindergarten and five in first grade. He previously taught for three years of Pre-K in Claysburg for Pre-K Counts through Child Advocates of Blair County, where he would take the kids out on walks in nature.
Stinson said although most of the students live in a rural area, they may not always get outside to experience nature like they do in school.
“We’re promoting a love for nature,” he said.
The school is participating in Keep Pennsylvania Beautfiul’s Litter Free School Zone Program, a statewide effort to teach students about litter and environmental responsibility. Stinson previously worked with the program during his tenure at Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Altoona.
As for Plummer’s class, they will continue to learn outside the classroom, long after the autumn leaves have fallen.
During the spring semester, Plummer’s pupils work together to help grow tadpoles and hatch chickens. Plummer said the kids are in charge of rotating the eggs three times a day. He teaches them about incubation temperatures and checking to make sure the eggs are properly growing.
“Spring is my favorite time because that’s when everything starts to grow again,” he said.
However, springtime isn’t the only time of year where the class has a live classroom project.
Each year, the new group of students vote on what type of class pet they should care for and, of course, choose a stellar name.
“Cutie,” the dwarf hamster, lives in a colorful playground on a desk in the back of the classroom. Students take turns with assigned classroom chores including caring for Cutie.
Plummer is looking into future partnerships and programs with the state Game Commission and Trout Unlimited, where students can learn about raising trout and potentially releasing them into a nearby stream.
Having an outdoor classroom would be beneficial for many projects, both Plummer and Stinson said.
“There’s so many things you can do,” Stinson said. “And having a space like that to educate kids about some of the things they don’t get to experience every day, those are the things that stick with kids the best.”