Project GO provides students outdoor learning experiences

SUBMITTED PHOTO Students work to collect seeds from the prairie during a fall session of Project GO in Chatfield.

SUBMITTED PHOTO Several students enjoy a hike on the Lost Creek Trail as part of a previous Project GO session.

SUBMITTED PHOTO Fossils are always a fun find when exploring rock beds.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

“The mission of Project Get Outdoors (Project GO) is to facilitate outdoor experiences that develop healthy kids and develop environmental stewardship behaviors. I guess, a decade later, our goals are still the same…to help kids enjoy the outdoors and learn to care about our environment,” stated Project GO volunteer leader Sandy Sullivan. She reflected on her years as a guide for Chatfield Elementary students to whom she has shown the wonders of going outside to explore the natural world.

She recounted the program’s beginnings. “Project GO was launched in the summer of 2009,” Sullivan said. “Sara Holger, Whitewater naturalist and founder of Project GO, came that spring and spoke to several of us who had been active in the Prairie Smoke group responsible for the restoration of the prairie on the high school property – now known as Savanna Springs Nature Area.

“We started that summer with 50 children, kindergarten through fifth grade for a one-week session,” Sullivan continued. “We soon realized that we didn’t have the capacity for such a large program, but the feedback from parents was so positive that we decided to alter the program into the school year, but for grades three through five. We discovered that some of our activities required basic reading skills, so we dropped kindergarten through second grade ages. Because we were having such long waiting lists, after a couple of years, we dropped grade five.”

Sullivan elaborated the program filled a need in Chatfield because there was a dearth of activities for elementary students.

“There seemed to be enough activities for middle school aged children, but not much for the elementary kids. Sara Holger had initiated Project GO in St. Charles, where she was living at the time. Chatfield was the second program to be established,” Sullivan said.

She also explained a number of other towns started Project GO programs at that time and since, but most have not continued, mainly for lack of volunteers.

“Chatfield is the largest continuous Project GO left in southern Minnesota,” Sullivan noted. “Today, we limit the registration to 25 third and fourth graders and are generally full. We found that fifth graders were more occupied with athletics, so we limited the enrollment for only grades three and four. We currently do three six-week sessions – fall, winter and spring – and we found that the summer session attendance was up and down, depending on family vacations and other activities, so we dropped the summer session two years ago. The winter session is generally the least well-attended, but this year, we filled with 25 kids.”

No matter the season, those 25 young explorers are in for a wild time. “We’ve done too many activities to list,” stated Sullivan. “Some of our favorites are taking the kids to Whitewater to band birds during the spring migration, snow-shoeing, ice skating and sledding in the winter, prairie seed collection in the fall, making solar prints with natural objects, scavenger hunts, photographing in the natural area, harvesting vegetables and fruits at Green Compass Farm, fossil hunts, exploration hikes on the Lost Creek Trail, going fishing at Chester Woods, stream studies, survival skills, et cetera.”

Sullivan and her fellow leaders have strived to show an increasingly isolated population of children that nature is not icky — and that one can actually touch it.

“One of the best examples of this is when the kids found a dead crow. At first, there were a lot of ‘yucky’ comments, but after talking about the possible causes of the bird’s death and the process of decomposition, the kids chose to check back in the following weeks to see what was happening to the corpse,” she recalled.

The lessons the volunteers share with the youngsters are invaluable, and even though it’s an outdoor classroom, the learning is very real.

“We can usually tell who is ‘getting’ it by the number who re-enroll for a second or third session,” Sullivan said. “Hopefully, those kids are learning some important stuff as well as enjoying the out-of-doors. Our feedback has been very positive.”

Personally, Sullivan said her favorite part is seeing the kids’ enthusiasm and enjoyment of the outdoor setting.

Very few things have changed about Project GO, aside from the activities the volunteers plan for the tribe of little learners.

“We are constantly looking for new activities for the kids, but have maintained the most popular sessions,” Sullivan said. “And we’ve been fortunate to have had excellent volunteers – originally, Jim Duffy, Andrea Mueller and myself were the volunteers for the program. Currently, Rev. Debra Collum, Cheryl Newman, Gordy Allen and my husband, Bill Sullivan, and myself share the leadership duties.”

Sullivan pointed out that it’s volunteerism that has made Project GO possible. “In order to successfully be a Project GO volunteer, a person needs to love being outside in all kinds of weather, loves working with kids, is physically able to be involved with the kids’ activities and can help generate creative activities that support the goals stated above,” she said. “Three of the current five volunteers are over 70 years old, and we aren’t the best physical specimens, so a volunteer should be physically fit enough to be able to move around with the kids and participate in activities in all kinds of weather.”

She remarked that the community has been most helpful in upholding Project GO over the past ten years, but now is the time for new volunteers to consider their time with the program.

“We have had great community support. Mike Bernard has been great about getting the kids bused to sites like the Lost Creek Trail head, skating rink and other sites without charge. The Lions Club donates to Project GO on a yearly basis and the Chatfield Community Foundation has awarded us grant money for healthy snacks and transportation. Since the fee for participation is only $5, monetary donations help with getting the kids to more distant sites such as Chester Woods and Whitewater State Park. And, of course, we need volunteers to help in the leadership of the program. Without a few younger volunteers, we won’t be able to sustain the program many more years.”

Anyone who does volunteer won’t be left without some introduction to how to get children engaged outdoors.

Sullivan explained, “Sara Holger does offer training, but we have been able to bring in new volunteers with some outdoor experience, and they have been able to learn from the other volunteers as we go along. Our volunteers have a planning meeting before each six-week session. We decide what activities we will offer and who will take responsibility for each aspect of that season’s program. We share responsibility for healthy snacks each week, who will gather materials or equipment, and which one of us will lead the activities. When weather dictates a change of activities, we communicate via email to facilitate those changes. The main time commitment is for the actual after-school sessions. We currently meet from 3 to 5 p.m. in the spring and fall, and because of the shorter daylight hours and cold temperatures, we meet from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in the winter.”

Sullivan welcomes inquiries about volunteering and she recommended parents consider doing so. She also recommended reading a book that spurred the piloting of Project GO.

“There is a great book by Richard Louv entitled ‘Last Child in the Woods.’ I recommend it to every parent. It makes the strong case that, in order for a child to develop fully — physically, mentally and emotionally — a child needs a healthy dose of the out-of-doors with time to just be curious about the world around him/her and allowed to explore the wonders of nature. Being engaged in the natural world is what Project GO is all about.”