As the school bus came to a slow stop on Meadow Road, 7-year-old Lucas Mattuchio was almost breathless with excitement. “Wow, look at that tree! Look at that one! Hey, there’s a squirrel,” the first grader from the East Boston Early Education Center exclaimed. He was eager to step into the landscape at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, a naturalized environment in the city that some Boston Public School (BPS) children don’t often get to experience.
Mattuchio was about to become a “Young Scientist” as part of the Arboretum’s Field Study Experiences (FSE) seasonal program for BPS students from prekindergarten through fifth grade. The program offers guided hands-on explorations in and around the meadows, ponds, and woodlands of the Arboretum in alignment with BPS Life Science Study and Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Learning standards. The program was created to augment students’ classroom experiences.
“What we do is unique in Boston because we have two hours of science education in an outdoor setting where we can share the tools and practices of science,” said Nancy Sableski, manager of children’s education at the Arboretum. “Our groups are intentionally small, often with two trained guides for five to eight children. I don’t know of any other institution that offers this kind of programming, and it’s free.”
This spring’s FSE season began on April 22, Earth Day, and welcomed 45 children from the East Boston Early Educational Center’s inclusion and English language learner classrooms. They divided into small groups to study nature with trained volunteer Field Study Guides.
“With two extraordinary full-time children’s educators, the volunteer Field Study Guides are the key to reaching out to so many Boston Public School children and their teachers” said William (Ned) Friedman, director of the Arnold Arboretum and Arnold Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.
The passion of our trained volunteers to connect young children to nature is palpable, Friedman stated. “Some of my favorite moments on the grounds involve just seeing the sheer delight on the faces of these young naturalists.”
Susan Angevin began volunteering in the program last fall. When the school bus arrived, she was ready with hand lenses, bug boxes, and other tools to lead her group of five into the perimeter of the Arboretum’s North Woods — the ideal classroom to observe insects and soil-dwelling organisms.
“I can’t imagine anything more fun than being out in this beautiful place with the trees and flowers and with kids,” she said. “It’s just been incredible. Every day we are guiding them, but you learn so much from them and their responses to nature.”
This was Mattuchio’s first time in the woods. With his classmates, he followed Sableski and Angevin as they took “giant steps” from the paved sidewalk through the still-dewy grass onto leaf-covered paths into the woods. “Who sees living things under our feet?” Sableski asked.
“I found a leaf! Can I keep it?” Mattuchio asked. “There’s a bumblebee! Can we touch stuff like worms?”
Sableski selected a clear spot in the woods, put down a tarp, and collected a few rocks, mushrooms, and leaves for examination. BPS students are currently studying woodland and fresh-water pond habitats in their classrooms, so she created an experience to demonstrate the sensory feel of the woods. “It’s such a special thing when you get to take children into the forest for the first time and share what lives there,” she said.