JANESVILLE

Gavin Olson got something weird stuck to his shirt.

Joseph Perez-Justo found the shell of a bug that had molted and moved on to better things. The bug had a stinger, making it a real find.

Other kids found hickory nuts, acorns, moss, compound leaves, oddly shaped sticks and something gooey and unspeakable.

The event was Washington Elementary School’s annual day at the Janesville Schools Outdoor Lab. It’s something all Janesville’s fourth-graders do every year as part of their science curriculum.

Activities included a nature scavenger hunt, being a “nature detective,” learning about animals’ interactions, a leaf-rubbing project and a walk in the woods that included—wait for it—a chance to take off their shoes and socks.

On Friday morning, fourth-grade teacher Ben Meyer and a group of student assistants from Craig and Parker high schools were leading students through the “nature detectives” portion of the day.

Their first job? Stand quietly for five minutes and look, listen and “maybe even smell” the woods around them.

“Take in as much as you can,” Meyer said. “Then ask yourself, what is the history of this forest.”

Surprisingly, most of the fourth-graders were able to make it through five minutes of quiet. Certainly, there was some random poking and one bark of laughter, but the students were absorbed in their surroundings.

That’s the point, said Tom Moore, coordinator of the outdoor lab.

“A lot of kids aren’t outdoors as much as we were,” said Moore, a retired teacher who helps run the outdoor lab. “There are just so many choices now.”

Fourth-grade teacher Jen Fieiras agreed with Moore. She’s been teaching for 28 years.

“I don’t think kids get outside as much as they used to,” she said.

Even outdoor activities such as sports tend to be formalized, with traveling teams and practice times.

“They don’t just play outside,” Fieiras said.

Fieiras’ favorite part of the day was seeing the students respond to nature.

“You should have heard the oooos and ahs when the bus was coming down the drive,” Fieiras said.

Out in the field, Meyer’s detectives were done with standing quietly and were exploring.

Xander Seel, 9, found a spiky burr. What was it for?

“Will it stick to your hat?,” Meyers asked.

Seel tried it on the smooth brim. It didn’t stick.

Meyers moved it to the mesh area.

There was a collective “Ohhhhh,” as kids figured out that the burr was a set of seeds, conveniently packaged to stick to an animal or a human.

It turned out that the “something weird” Gavin Olson had on his shirt were just a few such burrs.

Olson was pretty in tune with the woods. He noticed that one tree had an X painted on it and said it needed to be cut down. He further pointed out that the branches were dead and it didn’t look healthy.

Meyer was impressed.

“What are you doing as a fourth-grader?” Meyer asked “You should be an arborist.”

Other activities included measuring the circumference of a tree and dividing by pi to find the diameter. The diameter times the “growth factor” for that variety of tree will tell its age.

Every moment was a new revelation.

Why did that tree make red berries?

So the birds could find them, the kids said.

Why was it important for the birds to find them?

A brief period of cogitation followed.

One student finally got it: The birds will eat the berries and “spit out the seeds,” thus creating opportunities for more trees with red berries.

Yes, that’s what they do. They spit out the seeds.

Some students, such as Blayke Lambert had spent time exploring the woods with his dad on hunting trips.

For Lambert, the best part of being outdoors is “when we get a deer.”

On Friday, the best part of the day was the opportunity to walk barefoot through a stream.

“You should have heard them, ‘You mean we get to take our shoes and socks off?’” Fieiras said.

On the way back to school, one student told her that it was “the best field trip ever.”

And they learned stuff, too.

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