On October 5, our Place-Based Education Project Manager Andrew Deaett joined Thetford Academy’s Outdoor Program on an outing at Bill Hill in Thetford Center, VT. We love to highlight the amazing place-based ecological education you are doing in the Upper Valley. Do you have a story to share? Email Andrew, or Gabrielle Smith to arrange a classroom visit to highlight your work.
With a kind invite from Thetford Academy’s Outdoor Program (TOP) teacher, Scott Ellis, I joined an energetic group of high school students for an afternoon in October. The TOP adventure-mobile pulled into the Bill Hill parking lot, where students begin a hike to look for signs of New England’s land use following the arrival of European settlers several centuries ago. While the lesson focused on learning goals from a recent reading of Tom Wessels’ Reading the Forested Landscape, the afternoon outing highlighted the power of play in place-based education.
As they hiked to a sunny clearing atop Bill Hill, students paused to observe signs of settler land use. A well-formed stone wall separating the property from a neighboring pasture highlighted the region’s agricultural past. Stone walls such as these are indicative of the clearing done in the 1800’s to create pastures for a short lived “sheep fever” sparked by the importation of Merino sheep from Spain. Another key indicator of an agricultural past was the observation of pasture pines. According to Northern Woodlands, these “squat-multi stemmed trees” occur as white pine trees recolonizing abandoned agriculture fields are “weeviled” by the native white pine weevil, Pissodes strobi. The native insect lays eggs underneath the bark just below the trees leading shoot. When the eggs hatch the larvae feed on the inner bark, girdling and killing the leader. With the absence of a leader, the side shoots are free to grow up causing the characteristic forked appearance of pasture pines.
Passing more walls, clearings, and weevil pines, students quickly made their way to the top of the hill where they were given free time to explore. It didn’t take long for students to start a game of camouflage, a classic environmental education game where one student plays the role of predator, and the rest pretend to be prey, hiding camouflaged in the surrounding environment. The stone walls, weevil trees, and forest species they had been studying in class became their playground. What better place to hide than at the base of a grizzled white pine, or behind an old stone wall?
On this short outing, I saw students connecting with place while sharing in laughter, creative exploration, and collaboration. This playful approach facilitated learning goals of understanding Vermont’s pastoral history, forest succession, and land stewardship.