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Seawell Elementary Launches Explorer Backpack Program

When Erin Carroll, second grade teacher at Seawell Elementary School (SES), attended a National Science Teachers Association conference, she spoke with a Wake County Public School teacher who was using backpacks in her classroom for nature exploration, and she thought, “We can do this, too!”

As an undergraduate student, Carroll majored in environmental science, and she is always seeking innovative ways to bring the world outside into her classroom. In a collaboration with Dan Schnitzer, CHCCS sustainability program manager, and Carroll's colleague, Laura Nolan, SES school librarian, the Explorer Backpack program has been developed over recent weeks. They researched successful backpack lending services in public libraries across the country, as well as the less common examples of programs in school libraries. On the last Friday in April, the first round of backpacks went out to SES students for weekend enrichment and fun.

Nolan and her family live in the SES walk-zone, and she marvels at the richness of trails and wooded areas near the school. “All this land is so accessible, and families don’t need to spend any money to enjoy it. Nature walks are so great for kids!” She and Carroll wrote in the parent letter, “Being outside has been proven to increase children’s social, mental, and physical health. Research has also proven that learning and exploring outdoors can raise standardized test scores. In addition, being outdoors can help develop a sense of place and civic engagement while also engaging families and communities.”

L Nolan with explorer backpack The program is relatively simple. In consultation with Schnitzer, Carroll and Nolan have assembled 10 Explorer Backpacks with resources like binoculars, trail maps, handmade journals, bug boxes and grade-level appropriate activities and books. Each backpack is tagged by grade level, and every Friday, six students receive the nature trove to keep for the weekend and return on Monday morning. Students’ names are drawn in a lottery, with parent permission. There is no expectation for homework or record-keeping, but so far, children have plunged into the activities, and many parents have shared photos and journal entries from the weekend explorations.

Second grade student, Alex, accepted his backpack from Carroll with a quiet smile. His father, Zhen Fang, emailed Carroll to report on the experience the following Monday. “Alex had a very wonderful afternoon, even though the weather was slightly cloudy and it rained a little bit! He found different plants and leaves and compared with the card provided. He spent a lot of effort to find out the differences, scientifically. We really love the program.”

SES nature journal After the previous weekend, another second grade student shared a journal entry. “The weather was sunny. The season is spring. The clouds were altocumulus and cumulus. I saw rabbit droppings. I saw people footprints.” A kindergarten parent reported her child especially loved the colored pencils and binoculars. A fourth grade student named the exploration of trails and rocks as his favorite part.

Nolan and Carroll have worked carefully to infuse grade-level standards in social studies, science and literacy. Many of the materials included in the backpacks are laminated science guides, from phases of the moon, to state landforms to rock identifiers. Schnitzer assisted in their collection of local maps, from Chapel Hill greenways to Carolina North forest trail maps. Each backpack includes at least one book: biographies of environmentalists and scientists, guides to walking in the woods, explorations of ecosystems, and collections of nature poetry. Science Comics like “Trees: Kings of the Forest” are especially popular.

For an extra exploration bonus, Schnitzer has partnered with Townsend Bertram and Company in Carrboro. The outdoor sports store offers a coupon for one night rental of their camping equipment in each backpack. And each fourth grade student receives a pass for free yearlong entry into all national parks through the Every Kid in a Park program.

Although a relatively new educational resource, nature backpack programs are generally found in municipal libraries. Chapel Hill Public Library allows children and families to check out specifically curated packs, ranging from “Bugs” to “Fairies” to “Citizen Science.” The backpack called “Tracks” focuses on teaching users how to identify footprints, pawprints, and different kinds of animal droppings. In a 2018 “American Libraries Magazine” article, a Virginia librarian said, “Oh heck, this isn’t anything different than what we’ve always done. Libraries have always been where people go to learn. It’s really an entire learning system for our natural world.”

SES student with Ex Backpack In the SES parent letter, the team wrote, “The Explorer Backpack Program aims to reconnect students with nature while also increasing engagement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical fields. Our program will go one step farther by also connecting students to literacy. We will not only be encouraging the students, but their families and community as well. They love to share what they have learned and who better than to share it with the people they love! Please make this adventure your own and throw your own spin on it. We would love to hear all about where our backpacks go. Have fun!”

Kathryn Cole, school librarian at Northside Elementary School (NES) reports that their own Explorer Backpack program will soon launch from their media center. Schnitzer has provided the funds and expertise to help the school distribute as many as 10 backpacks per weekend. Cole said, “We are in the process of getting these ready to circulate with families. We are excited about the potential for this resource to bring families together with nature outside of school. Happy to see these backpacks are already creating memories in the Seawell School community. ”