Outdoor classroom is hands-on experience

By Daphne Hutchinson

Special to the Rappahannock News

Sixth graders from Rappahannock Elementary joined homeschoolers and students from Hearthstone, Belle Meade and Wakefield down by the riverside in Sperryville recently for RappFLOW’s outdoor classroom. Five weeks without rain dramatically dropped water levels in the Thornton River, adding a challenge to collecting macroinvertebrates, but the upside was sunshine, bright blue skies and perfect weather for outdoor studies.

The hands-on opportunities at this annual focus on water resources and their protection had kids engaged . . . and oblivious to the bell that signaled time to move to another station. Besides the netting of water pennies, mad toms, stone flies and other pollution-sensitive aquatic life forms to assess the health of the river, the young people watched, participated and learned by chemically testing water samples, appreciating the power of watershed buffers, forests and ground cover to filter pollutants and recognizing the near eternal life of trash dumped into streams – from 80 years for an aluminum can to decompose to 178 years for tire decomposition.

“You all have your own power to make changes,” advised Brent Hunsinger from Stream Sweepers. “How many of you leave the water running when you brush your teeth?” he asked eliciting sheepish smiles and nods of assent from listeners. Jaws dropped when they heard that the sweepers collected 16 tons of trash from a 20 mile-stretch of the Rappahannock, and you knew they were all remembering and regretting that soda can they tossed.

Over trays of macroinvertebrates at the Friends of the Rappahannock station, Rachel Bynum called on kids to be “citizen scientists” and monitor the status of the county’s waterways.

“This is a really cool thing!” announced an excited sixth grader, working with tweezers to separate and count tiny wiggling creatures that affirm the Thornton River is clean.

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Beth Gall, watching gaggles of learners at five stations, waving their hands and calling out answers. An environmental science teacher at Rappahannock High School, now retired, Beth has helped with the RappFLOW field day since its start six years ago. “The kids are out of the classroom, into the stream, into the woods, touching, smelling, feeling,” she noted. “They hear new information from new people; that carries weight. It’s something different; that carries weight, too.”

“Children are our future,” added Donna Marquisee, who solicited presenters and worked with Carolyn Thornton to organize this year’s RappFLOW program. “We need to teach the children, and then they will teach us. And they’ll save the world.”

To learn how you can be a champion of Rappahannock’s water resources, join the active conservationists in RappFLOW (Rappahannock Friends and Lowers of Our Watershed). For information, visit rappflow.org.