Arboretum has shared nature learning with kids for 35 years

Children in the Arboretum

Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Harvard University

3 min read

Thirty-five years ago, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University began offering free programs for elementary school students called Field Study Experiences (FSE), opening the gates of nature and science to thousands of Boston Public School (BPS) children.

The initiative — launched in 1984 with a request from the Boston schools to local museums to help enhance the study of science for elementary school students — continues to grow as an important educational partnership helping support the BPS life sciences curriculum for children in pre-kindergarten through grade five.

“This fall we not only celebrate the longevity of these programs, but the expansion of our reach and our recommitment to the Boston Public Schools,” said Nancy Sableski, manager of children’s education at the Arboretum.

In celebration of its 35 years serving the community, the FSE program is honoring the volunteers who serve as guides, which have grown from 11 in 1984, to now more than 60. During the 2018-19 academic year, guides logged more than 1,031 volunteer hours. Sableski said the mission — cultivating young scientists through hands-on explorations in Boston’s landscape for learning — succeeds through the dedication of these skilled volunteers who share their love of the natural world in a small-group format, putting plants and tools right into students’ hands.

The Arboretum’s 281-acre urban greenspace is ideally suited to translate life science curriculum standards into interactive experiences for children. Successful engagement for those with little access to nature or experience learning in an outdoor setting must be grounded in a multi-sensory approach that allows for flexibility and spontaneity, key tenets of the FSE program.

An ongoing commitment to strengthening the partnership with BPS facilitated a revitalization of FSE in 2004, including expanded opportunities for learning at the Arboretum, free bus transportation for students and teachers, as well as specialized training for volunteers tailored to the needs of young learners.

When the program began in 1984, the Harvard Gazette wrote, “With the recognition that the teaching of science has fallen on hard times, the Arnold Arboretum has embarked on an ambitious, hands-on program for elementary school children.” This assessment sounds similar to the state of science education at the present moment Sableski said, but 35 years later, the Arboretum continues to offer quality science study to elementary school students. As of last year, BPS participation averages more than 80 percent of all programming for the 2,500 students who come to the Arboretum each academic year. Sableski projects participation will likely increase to 90 percent by next fall.

“Serving Boston’s school children is a fitting mission for the Arboretum, for which we are proud,” she said. “Small groups, skilled guides, a wondrous landscape, a free bus, this is the recipe, and we look forward to increasing our impact in the years to come.”