by Nick Fierro
Listen up, kids: it’s important to know your own backyard. And with plenty of places to camp, hike and canoe, there are few classrooms as good as ours in Missouri.
For some students, however, hands-on outdoor experiences are out of reach, owing to financial barriers or an outright lack of programming. Now a new nonprofit, Gateway to the Great Outdoors, is working to make the natural classroom accessible for children from under-resourced areas of St. Louis.
The nonprofit, which started in late 2015 as a student group at Washington University and ran its first program in January 2016, expanded into an independent organization last November; they anticipate receiving 501(c)(3) status in May. Founder and CEO Nadav Sprague, a recent Wash U graduate, says Gateway aims to teach junior high school students about sustainability, natural sciences and the environment through hands-on outdoor activities.
A lifelong outdoorsman who grew up in Chicago, Sprague, now 22, was inspired to start Gateway as a junior when he became aware of the lack of outdoor opportunities for children of low-income families in the region.
“We meet with students after school on a weekly basis to do science-based education — biology, ecology, sustainability, and practical outdoors skills, like setting up a tent,” he says. “We also take weekend [camping] trips; our upcoming trip is to Camp Manitowa in southern Illinois, where we’ll take them canoeing and do activities that the kids wouldn’t have access to before.”
Although the program is young, it’s attracted educators eager to contribute to its supplemental curriculum: Shoshana Fain, a veteran teacher with a Harvard background, acts as an educational consultant, and Christine Ekenga, an assistant professor of public health at Wash U's George Warren Brown School of Social Work, helps develop health-related lessons. The program’s staff works with teachers at partnered schools to augment their existing STEM instruction, as well as the Missouri Botanical Garden and Shaw Nature Reserve. The program also recruits college students to act as facilitators.
“If sixth graders have just finished a unit on water, we’ll do a practical lesson on waterways and the water cycle,” Sprague says. “We’re teaching them some college-level stuff in a sixth-grade environment…but some may read at a first grade level, so we need to adapt the lessons.”
Currently, Gateway only works with two local charter schools, Lift for Life Academy and KIPP Triumph Academy, but they’re already looking ahead. By next year, they hope to have expanded their reach to three schools in Chicago and one in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Sprague says, with the eventual goal of going national. With the help of grants, fundraisers and sponsorships, Gateway wants to hire more staff and expand its existing programming. Sprague says they've been able to show real results in the student's scientific aptitude.
“Before they started, it went over their heads, but through survey results we have found they understand the things they learned,” he says. “There’s been a drastic improvement in classroom performance.”
“The students absolutely love this program,” local teacher Susan Kelter notes in a written testimonial. “They are being exposed to a variety of activities that are enhancing their knowledge about the outdoors.”
Says Sprague, “These are amazing kids. We’re giving them something they’ve never had the opportunity to do, while helping them develop leadership and community development skills.”
For more information about Gateway to the Great Outdoors, check out its website at gatewayoutdoors.org.