By Sarah Kempfer, Education Programs Manager
The Alice Ferguson Foundation (AFF) has had the privilege of sharing the wonders of nature with children, teachers, and adults for more than 65 years. Thousands of people have had the opportunity to explore the creeks and woods, meet the farm animals, tell stories by the campfire, climb the hills to look out over the Potomac and, of course, roll down those big hills. Children and adults visiting AFF learn about the science and complexities of our natural environment. They discover that everything fits together from monarchs and milkweed, to osprey and fish! And they learn about their own role in nature and the impact humans have on the environment.
These AFF-led outdoor experiences make a difference to the health of individuals and the environment. For example, many children today do not feel a connection to nature. They spend very little time in nature and more time indoors in front of screens. In many cases, the pandemic caused children to spend even more time indoors isolated from nature and other people. Depression and stress among young people rose dramatically. Research over the past decades has shown that spending time in nature has many benefits including cognitive, emotional, and social well-being. Connection with nature increases our sense of happiness, boosts well-being, and can have a positive impact on social interactions, our sense of meaning and purpose in life. Exposure to nature can lead to improvements in attention and increase our capacity to reflect on a life problem (APA, 2020). AFF’s mission to get students into nature helps them to reconnect with nature and develop a lifelong appreciation of nature that will expand their physical, social and emotional health.
Reconnecting to nature helps people but it also helps nature, as those that understand and appreciate our earth’s natural systems are more likely to work to protect them. Through the environmental education program, AFF encourages students to ask questions, make observations and act on solutions to protect the environment. This leads to more empowered and educated individuals who can use their experiences to create better solutions to current and future environmental issues.
The Alice Ferguson Foundation has connected people to nature for many years by teaching about the importance of watersheds and helping clean them up. What is a watershed? We learn this by rolling down the hill like water does! Water, and all it carries, ends up in the Potomac, then the Chesapeake, and on to the Atlantic Ocean. Students and adults love exploring water quality by finding macroinvertebrates in our streams and understanding that only certain types of critters can live in clean water. Is our water clean? Why not? What can we do to make it cleaner?
How about a shoreline cleanup! Since 1989, AFF has supported and encouraged all of us to take care of our nearby nature by participating in a trash cleanup. Over 8,000,000 tons of trash have been removed through the Potomac River Watershed Cleanup program. Great job everyone! AFF is helping all of us understand the importance of protecting our watershed.
AFF provides leadership in environmental education to school systems in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Here schools are to provide opportunities for all students to investigate and participate in solving environmental problems in elementary, middle and high school through the Meaningful Watershed Educational Experience (MWEE) or “me-we” program. AFF uses our environmental education expertise to help school systems develop MWEE programs for their students. For example, through a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, AFF has worked with Charles County curriculum writers and teachers to develop and implement a third grade science MWEE around understanding our schoolyard habitats. This year the 3rd graders got outside to investigate their schoolyard habitat. They learned about adaptations and lifecycles and created an action project to help solve a problem. In the coming school year, through a DNR grant, every 3rd grader in Charles County (2000 kids!) will be coming to AFF for a field trip! They will all get to investigate who is living in the wet marsh, meet the goats, visit the garden to learn about composting, and of course, roll down the hill! Then they will return to their own school to find ways to help their nearby environment.
AFF serves an important role in our community by providing this MWEE experience to our day and overnight student field study programs. After 2 years of virtual programs, the Prince George’s county 5th graders are planning to be back on campus for their overnight stay at AFF! This will begin in the spring after the pavilion is completed. PG students will again have their immersive nature experience, learn science concepts and build their connection to nature. In addition, AFF will begin working in-person with schools in National Parks through the Bridging the Watershed program.
AFF also provides opportunities for teachers to participate in our environmental education program and bring new ideas back to their classrooms. The PG County Summer Science Institute brings teachers together for two weeks of environmental science experiences. They learn about watersheds, catch critters in the creek, visit a recycling and composting center, go kayaking at Jug Bay and wade into the Potomac. Teachers learn ways to integrate nature studies into their teaching so that they can bring this newfound knowledge and love of the environment back to their classroom. Many teachers have overcome their fears, learned to appreciate the intricacies of the natural environment and become enthusiastic outdoor educators. This experience can be life altering.
The work of the Alice Ferguson Foundation opens the eyes and hearts of children and adults to the wonders of nature. Hands-on science experiences can give students new perspectives and allow them to consider new career opportunities. Participating in solving environmental problems allows hope to bubble up in a worried world. Being connected to nature can provide life-long health and emotional benefits. All of this happens through the work of the Alice Ferguson Foundation.