For third-graders at Glenn Hills Elementary School, the best way to learn about nature was hands-on, or hands-in.
While learning about soils, the pupils felt and rubbed dirt between their fingers to feel its texture and hear the particles rub together. They looked at it under a magnifying glass.
And they got to make mud pies.
"It's fun," said Latricia Williams, 9, of her soil experiments while on a visit to Spirit Creek Educational Forest, a preserve in south Augusta run by the Georgia Forestry Commission.
It was fun, but it also was good science.
Wendy Lowenthal, a soil-conservation technician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources' Conservation Service, taught the program on soil. Pupils learned about soil types, origin and makeup. After learning about the size of soil particles, the pupils made mud pies with sand, clay and topsoil to determine which had smaller particles to stick together better.
"We are trying to get the kids to use their powers of observation and their senses," said Cathy Black, senior forester with the Georgia Forestry Commission and director of the educational forest. "And a dirty child is a happy child."
The Spirit Creek Education Forest, off McDade Road in Hephzibah, is 300 acres of wetlands, planted loblolly pines and bottomland hardwoods.
The forest was transferred from Gracewood State School and Hospital to the Forestry Commission in 1984. It was used as an educational forest for the first time last year. It was visited by more than 2,800 children from its opening in March through December.
Programs cover forest management, agriculture, soil, wetlands and wildlife. They were designed by local teachers and foresters to complement required classroom teaching material for each grade level. Courses are taught by foresters, rangers, educators and natural resource specialists.
Elementary-school pupils may study soil and rocks, while high school students can learn about water, orienteering and timber management. The pupils learn appreciation for nature. A rule of the forest is not to kill anything, even bugs. One third-grader found a bug while making mud pies and screamed. Immediately, all the others ran to their soil piles in hopes of finding a bug, too.
The educational forest includes a self-guided trail through a tupelo swamp, where pupils can see wetlands habitats and conduct water-quality studies. Informative signs explain greenbrier, swamp-water levels and other topics.
An arboretum displays native trees with "talking trees." The talking tree is really a solar-powered talking box next to a tree explaining its identifying characteristics, its role in the ecosystem, use by man and any unusual features. Different messages are played for kindergarten through third grade and for fourth grade and above.
Prescribed burning is used regularly as a tool in the forest. The controlled burning reduces ground brush and encourages more succulent growth for wildlife food.
"If a fire ever got in here, it would not destroy the trees because there would be very little fuel," Mrs. Black said.
The forest is open for scheduled groups on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Hours of operation are from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call Mrs. Black at 790-2351.
Reach Valerie Rowell at (706) 823-3351 or firstname.lastname@example.org.