The New Jersey School of Conservation attracts school groups from all over the tri-state area. From New York City to Philadelphia to the Cape May Point, students travel from private, public, and charter schools to experience the outdoors and study this pristine northern New Jersey ecosystem. For many of the students who arrive, the School of Conservation campus offers an entirely new and unique landscape; some have never traveled outside of their urban and suburban hometowns.
However, for some students who come to learn, the temperate forest ecosystem, Eastern Hemlock stands, and American Black Bears are very familiar. Such is the case for the seventh graders of Netcong Elementary School, who didn’t have far to travel for their annual three-day stay at the School of Conservation. Located just thirty miles from campus, Netcong Elementary features small class sizes that provide for a more intimate, student-focused education. Technology teacher and Trip Coordinator Gina Szarejko explained that this year’s seventh grade class is exceptionally small, consisting of only approximately twenty students. Therefore, facilitating a strong bond between the students is important. And what better way to do it than at the only outdoor education center of its kind in New Jersey!
“We want the kids to learn teamwork,” Szarejko said, which is an important value that the School of Conservation instills in each group that visits. Netcong students worked together to solve intellectual and physical challenges through out their entire stay, participating in Group Initiatives, Confidence Course, and New Games. One student remarked that the self-confidence he gained on the Confidence Course, a low rope course, could help him and his classmates to end bullying in their school. Szarejko and Writing teacher, Darrell Sandrue, both believe that the natural surroundings are key to helping the students develop character and personal ethics: “Once you get rid of the pen and paper, give them a new setting, they will learn…They learn about themselves and each other.”
In fact, scholars and scientists alike agree that simply being exposed to nature can improve the overall mental health of an individual, in addition to the well being of a community. Drawing upon studies and research across the globe, journalist and nature writer Richard Louv writes, “Among the benefits [of spending time in nature:] improvement of psychological well-being; generation of physical health benefits by reducing blood pressure and burning calories; and the building of social networks.”
Learning in the outdoors—whether it be about the historic geological processes that shaped the Appalachian Mountain Range and surrounding Stokes State Forest in Stream Geo-Ecology or an integrated class such as Boating that fosters individuality, freedom, and curiosity for water ecosystems—takes students out of the traditional classroom and allows for a full sensory experience that lasts a lifetime. Sandrue remembers his own trip as a young student to the School of Conservation, commenting on how he’s thoroughly enjoyed witnessing the positive evolution of the curriculum over the years. Indeed, School of Conservation staff and educators continuously make changes and improvements to current lessons to reflect the changing social and technological world, even creating new courses altogether. They also help Montclair State University graduate students and professors conduct wildlife research on campus and stay informed on the latest studies about environmental education and introducing the natural world to children.
Both Szarejko and Sandrue agree on the importance of this trip. Having been bringing students to campus for many years now, they notice the difference it makes in their students’ lives. Not only do the students gain valuable knowledge about ecology and working as a team, but they have fun while doing it. “The kids come back from this trip and they are like our best friends. They go to Washington DC too, but think that the trip to the School of Conservation is so much better!”
Louv, Richard. “RESTORING PEACE: Six Ways Nature in Our Lives Can Reduce the Violence in Our World.” The New Nature Movement. Children & Nature Network, 10 Jan 2013. Web. 20 May 2013.