Hitchcock Center Naturally Adaptable During COVID-19 Pandemic

PHOTO Jessica Schutz

Hitchcock Center’s outdoor, nature-based programming made us natural leaders as students need outdoor classes and many educators statewide take their first steps into outdoor instruction. Outdoor learning environments have been proven to support the health, curiosity and natural development of children, and we are committed to creating additional programs that support children’s healthy development this way at a time when indoor instruction poses risks. We’ve taught other teachers, accustomed to classrooms, to make the same shift.

Our staff worked in teams through the early spring to pivot, adjusting our existing curriculum to both virtual and in-person programming. Together, we landed on a modified and adapted set of programs to serve the needs of parents, teachers, and children during this period of unforeseen change.


View our promotional field trip video to learn more.

In the spring we piloted four virtual school field trips with nine classrooms in Western Massachusetts. These field trips incorporate pre-trip investigations, an introductory video, and a live-stream video session with a Hitchcock Center educator using Zoom or Google Meets. The offerings have included Mountains and Valleys, Insect Investigations, Life in a Pond, and Amazing Animal Adaptations.

We are also growing our virtual offerings for the winter and spring by adding a new virtual field trip designed around the engineering challenge of rainwater capture.

The programs reflect our commitment to being an essential resource for elementary schools seeking to maintain high-quality standards-based STEM education for their students during the academic year. While this continues to be a difficult time for teachers, we are committed to provide resources to support their curriculum needs.

Professional Development

As early as Spring 2020, we partnered with the Wade Institute for Science Education, a four-day training for 14 educators throughout New England. For this we created a professional development program called “Making Place-Based Learning: A virtual Institute for Grades 4-12 Educators” through which we gave our teacher community what they needed when they needed it.

The institute focused on training to support science and engineering practices in the curriculum using place-based, hands-on, minds-on activities to spark wonder in students and frame inquiry-based science instruction.

In May, in partnership with Antioch New England, we co-hosted a virtual In-Bloom conference. Among the offerings, we organized a panel of principals and teachers to share with the 80 participants about ways they use the outdoors as a classroom and teaching space.

During the summer, we surveyed local schools, talking with teachers and curriculum directors to understand their challenges and needs. With this information, we created our virtual classroom and field trip offerings, in addition to developing a Summer Institute for two weeks in August for 26 teachers. The institute, “Using the Outdoors to teach STEM during Covid 19 Pandemic,”demonstrated techniques for teaching in the outdoors while following COVID-19 protocols.

It seemed a natural progression shifting all our own programs to full-time outdoors and developing and sharing a toolkit that could help teachers pivot confidently to this style of teaching. The outdoor institutes also helped to connect teachers to each other as all came to experience nature as a calming and nurturing place during the stresses of abrupt school transitions. Teachers left with four days of outdoor curriculum ideas, games, songs, writing prompts and projects in engineering and design.

This fall, for the second year running, Mt. Holyoke College invited our Education Director Colleen Kelley to teach a five-week science education course in the Master of Arts in Teaching program. The course helps current teachers and pre-service teachers to develop a hands-on curriculum rooted in constructivist, inquiry-based learning. Teachers could take that curriculum directly to classroom. As the 12 teachers developed their ideas using found items from around their own home to investigate STEM principles, they connected in small break-out groups. There, they shared notes: “How did you apply these concepts?” “Did you think of doing it this way?” “Did anybody surmount this obstacle?” This year we even had the added benefit of modeling online pedagogy for teachers new to the practice!

Children, Youth and Families

PHOTO Jessica Schultz

Throughout the summer, instead of our traditional Nature Summer Camp, we offered 45 all-outdoor, in-person, small-group programs that served 308 participants. These programs served as a vital outlet for children who needed to play together safely. Families were delighted to find opportunities to engage safely in activities shared with others beyond their four walls.

This fall we increased the number and flexibility of our programs to offer 66 small group, all-outdoor programs. Whether it’s guided Games in Nature or self-directed Nature Play, our educators emphasize learning as well as social-emotional development in a time of social isolation.

Our fall offerings represent a quadrupling of the number of programs that we offer families as their needs change during the pandemic. Our amazing staff not only pivoted; they delivered a newfound wealth of practical programming for students, teachers, and parents alike. Through these programs we have served 575 participants.

Sliding-Scale Fee Structure

Given the economic strain that so many are facing during this time, our staff created a new sliding-scale fee structure that responds to the growing gap in financial neediness. This fee structure pertains to both family programs and those providing virtual school. The four tiers of the scale allow participants to self-select their tuition level.

Our comprehensive winter environmental and outdoor program plan is now available on our website to help families fill the gaps in new school models that districts across the state are adopting. Through these programs, we hope that families will continue to find a diversity of opportunities to both enjoy the season and thrive during the pandemic. We will continue to adapt these programs in response to community needs.

March 2020 lockdowns threatened to thwart the science education of Massachusetts students, our future leaders. Their social-emotional development also seemed to be an inevitable sacrifice. Not on our watch! The Hitchcock Center adapted its own teaching methods, taught teachers how to teach under lockdown, and gave parents the curriculum and community that they so desperately needed.

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