By Jake Preston, ELK Education Coordinator
Whew, what a rush! It’s been an incredible year so far for Environmental Learning for Kids as we’ve opened our new facilities in Montbello, continued to grow our staff and number of youth and families served, and raised near-record amounts of funding through grants and donations. However, after years of adjusting lessons and patiently waiting, ELK is finally back performing one of its most fundamental values which is teaching and mentoring in our local classrooms!
Teaching and working with youth in our community might be the most important thing that ELK does, but I’m also biased. Most of my days are spent teaching day programs or after-school programs with children typically aged K-5, and to the casual observer it may appear that our groups are just having fun. However, amidst the laughing, the conversations, and general student excitement that comes with our experiments and lessons, there is so much more going on internally for each of our kids.
ELK’s school-based programs follow an experiential education focus, meaning that our goal is to strive to make learning a hands-on lesson in real time. With us, students are expected to work together, ask questions, make hypotheses, and test different approaches. This environment makes for sudden developments that can feel rowdy at times and lead to “a-ha!” moments for students. This approach embraces exploration and provides a safe space to make mistakes, be authentic, and take new chances.
Studies have repeatedly confirmed the benefits of experiential learning (social-emotional development, critical thinking skills, etc.). But as an experiential educator for more than a decade, some observations can’t easily be quantified, such as:
· Students who generally struggle with learning and behavior in a “traditional” classroom environment tend to thrive with experiential learning, particularly in the outdoors
· Experiential education allows for students to critically think on a higher level without constant prompting from the educator
· Hands-on learning and continually trying to solve problems open opportunities to develop confidence and new friendships
· Learning through play is one of the most impactful methods for learning and growth for people of all ages
· Many students fear the outdoors initially, and usually come around to embrace nature and an inquisitive mindset
· The teacher doesn’t need to know every piece of information; the teacher is a guide on the journey with students and relationships are organic
· Asking students what they are interested in and exploring with them is vital; teaching is fluid and accommodating, not rigid and prescriptive
· Students will surprise themselves as to what they can accomplish if a teacher encourages, helps set goals, and hold them accountable
At this point, we’ve worked with more than 500 K-5 students since the beginning of the 2022 school year and have given them all a unique, active problem to work through.
If life is the sum of all our experience, then ELK’s goal is to give our students as many opportunities as possible to try things for themselves. We know our students are already amazing people, and we’re honored to give them the chance to show off their skills and who they are.
Jake Preston is ELK’s Education Coordinator for School-Based Programs. Jake’s passions lie in creating opportunities for the next generation to fall in love with the environment and increasing accessibility to the outdoors to as many members of the community as possible. When you can’t find him leading groups in environmental education, you can find him exploring new trails, road tripping to hole-in-the-wall destinations, or relaxing at home with the family.
About Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK): Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) is a Denver-based, nonprofit organization established in 1996 to address the growing need to introduce and educate Colorado’s racially diverse youth about science, leadership, and careers. Twenty-five years later, ELK continues to provide strong educational support, good role models, and opportunities for positive community action for youth, helping them to become engaged, productive, and successful members of society. Learn more at elkkkids.org.