- A School that Changes the Lives of Kids from 5th grade on
- Wolf School Program creates Conservationists
- Inspiration, Passion, Empowerment is Learned Here
By Larry Whiteley
The amount of time kids spend outdoors in nature is at an all-time low. Time in front of a television, playing video games and time on smart phones is at an all-time high. A recent study by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute found that, on average, children now spend only 12.6 minutes a day on outdoor activities compared with 10.4 waking hours being relatively motionless. The result is a childhood obesity rate that has soared due to a combined decline in creativity, concentration and social interaction skills in our kids.
Because of this we are also at risk of losing an entire generation’s appreciation for how nature works and how we need to take care of it for future generations. As Richard Louv said in his book Last Child in the Woods, “The child in nature is an endangered species and the health of children, and the health of the earth, are inseparable.”
10 years ago in Springfield, MO a group of people got together to try to change those statistics for the kids in their school system. The Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility (WOLF) School was formed in partnership with the Springfield Public School System with support from the Wonders of Wildlife Museum and Bass Pro Shops.
WOLF School is like any other public school, but kids choose to attend this one. Well over four hundred 4th grade students who have satisfactory attendance and behavior records apply each year, but only 46 students are chosen by a random drawing to attend as 5th graders. There is wish and hope competition. The school system provides transportation along with teachers Courtney Reece and Lauren Baer, who are passionate about the outdoors and conservation.
This outdoor learning school is operated by the school system, but the classroom is not in a normal school building. It is located in the John A. & Genny Morris Conservation Center in outdoor-themed classrooms that provide state-of-the-art facilities to help further learning with technology and an outdoor learning lab. It was all built for the school by noted conservationist, Johnny Morris.
Next door to the school is the Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium. Kids also use it as a learning facility and sometimes you can find them telling visitors all about the fish and wildlife on display. The Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store is next door also and furnishes gear, know-how and support. Johnny Morris would probably tell you WOLF School and all the children it has touched is one of the best investments he has ever made.
Studies have shown that outdoor time boosts classroom performance and they grow up to be better stewards of the environment. The school inspires and educates the next generation of conservation leaders with a complete curriculum in the classroom. Every week, at least once or twice a week, students take what they’ve learned in the classroom and head out into the great outdoors to learn through hands-on exploration and field experiences.
They learn about the conservation of Missouri’s water, forests, caves, prairies, wetlands and glades. The kids get to experience hiking, fishing, snorkeling, canoeing and kayaking, stream surveying, river and stream ecology, woodworking, owl pellet dissection, hunting, shooting, game-calling, birding, caving, animal-handling, map and compass, orienteering and a whole lot more.
Misty Mitchell has been there from the beginning of WOLF School and serves as the staff liaison between Springfield Public Schools, Bass Pro Shops and Wonders of Wildlife. Misty says, “One of my favorite things about WOLF is how it absorbs the entire family. The students are taking and teaching their parents about the natural resources that WOLF visits during the school day. Parents are usually overwhelmed in the beginning as their student’s passion for learning increases by leaps and bounds.”
Teacher Courtney Reece echoed Misty’s words when she said, “My favorite thing about the program is that it doesn’t just affect students. It brings families together. Parents are overjoyed that their kids initiate family time because of the program.”
The school also has helped with teaching the kids from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Southwest Region Outdoor and Education Supervisor Warren Rose says, “We are pleased to offer teacher training, conservation education curriculums and outdoor skills activities for WOLF, but we also want other Missouri schools to know that we can provide the same thing to their school even if they don’t have a special classroom.”
Volunteers like Bob and Barb Kipfer are also an integral part of the school. The Kipfer’s not only come to the classroom to help teach the kids, they also open their land along Bull Creek in Christian County to be used as an outdoor classroom several times a year. I asked Bob his thoughts on these school programs and he said, “In a perfect world, all students would have as least some of the experiences that the WOLF program offers. We have the resources including volunteers, but needs change in our nation’s education system to expand the student’s horizons. It is, after all, the world that they will be inheriting.” I think the majority of teachers and parents would agree with Bob’s words.
The success of WOLF School has been credited with helping start a new off campus school for 5th graders called the Academy of Exploration at the Discovery Center of Springfield with a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) focus. In addition, the school system has started the Health Science Academy at Mercy Hospital in Springfield for 8th graders interested in being a part of the health industry.
Over the last decade, over 400 students have graduated from WOLF school. Like Bob Kipfer, I am sure all those involved wish all kids, not just those in Springfield, could have the opportunity to attend schools like WOLF. If that ever happened it could change the lives of a lot of kids and it could also change the broken world we live in.
Maybe if more parents, grandparents, educators and politicians heard the story of Diana Summit we would see those changes happen. Diana always had a passion for science and was lucky enough to have caring teachers who invested their time to fuel that passion. It was through them that she heard about the WOLF School program.
She talked her family into letting her apply and she was accepted. Coming from an underprivileged home with no car and no money she had to catch a city bus, then walk in all kinds of weather to make it to school. Remember this is a 10-year old 5th grader. “WOLF was feeding something inside me that was so powerful that I had to be there. I had always loved school, but WOLF School was special and I was going to be there whatever the price,” said Diana.
Diana graduated from WOLF School with the 2008-2009 class and is now the first person in her family to graduate high school. She is currently enrolled at Missouri State University studying to be a veterinarian. Diana says, “When I look back at this time in my life I can clearly see how WOLF and Wonders of Wildlife really changed my life.”
How many more lives could be changed because of school programs like WOLF? How many families would grow closer together and stronger? How many kids would grow up to be our future conservationists? How many of these kids as adults would work to change our world for the better?
“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what Thoreau had in mind when he said, “the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.”