Hunting for crabs, visiting a farm, and tapping trees for sap are the sorts of little delights that many of us enjoyed as children. For many city kids, the opportunities to experience the natural world may be harder to come by. A multi-agency program called Operation Explore, however, has been providing access to these kinds of adventures for thousands of elementary school children from New York City neighborhoods since the mid-1970s.
Major funding for the program comes from the NY State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The New York City Department of Education supplies in-kind services, some logistical coordination, and a comprehensive training manual, while the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation at their Stony Kill Farm facility in Dutchess County provides agricultural-oriented lessons for the visiting students. Cornell University Cooperative Extension is responsible for enrichment materials within the farm component of the program. The newest cooperator is the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which provides resources for New York City's water supply and watershed education.
Operation Explore involves a year-long commitment by the teachers. All students and their teachers maintain a nature journal for the school year; in addition, there are some required classroom components such as soil analysis from different habitats, two class trips (one day, one residential) and material to be submitted at the end of the year.
In the fall, at Gateway National Recreation Area in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island, National Park Rangers guide their youthful charges along the shoreline and together, they explore an amazing variety of marine life. A major goal of this program is to give urban students an opportunity to both see and experience the habitats and the interrelationships of the urban and rural environments.
A little later in the school year, students head North to spend most of a day at the farm, where the students attend hands-on lessons and activities that include: grinding corn for homemade.
By Pete Salmansohn and Susan Butterfass
Taconic Outdoor Education Center
"Ooh, it's a big crab."
"Wow, look at all those chickens!"
"Is that a sugar maple?" johnnycakes; the care and feeding of the farm's resident cattle, pigs, sheep, turkeys and chickens; studies of the effect of erosion and pollution on farmland; and a visit to the greenhouse. Students are left with a greater understanding of the energy involved in getting food to the table, as well as human impact on available resources.
From the farm, the students go directly to the Taconic Outdoor Education Center in Putnam County for two and a half days of outdoor lessons. Operated by the Taconic Park Region, the center is situated within the 20,000+ wooded acres of Clarence Fahnestock Memorial State Park and employs a teaching staff of eight college graduates. Among the many activities that the children participate in are: a night hike without flashlights, pond study, outdoor skills, forest ecology, and a teambuilding challenge course called Project Adventure. Faced with problems such as getting through a tire suspended four feet off the ground or climbing over an eight-foot wall, the students gain much field practice in the arts of communication, cooperation, and compromise. This last experience is enhanced by participation in serving meals to their peers in the dining hall.
By the time the students have experienced the three different components of Operation Explore, they're bubbling with excitement about their discoveries and the outdoors in general. This can be and often is a life-altering experience for them, many of whom have never spent a night away from home, helped set or clear the table, or spent any time at all observing nature. Some typical student comments include: "I think this trip was great – this was the most wonderful trip I have ever experienced", "I never went to a place like this and I want to come here again for the rest of my life", "This is an experience I will never forget!!!"