Slow down and explore something; kids have learning opportunities outside of school

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Hiking guide Linda Belanger led a group of 21 Hancock Elementary School students and their teachers up a rocky dirt service road then onto a forest path at Ramblewild in Lanesborough. Best known as an aerial park, it also opens through its Feronia Forward foundation its grounds for guided nature and science exploration along its trails outside the park.

As some of the children rushed or pushed to get ahead in the line, Belanger said, "Slow down."

She looked back at her line and said, "Why is everyone always in a rush? Slow down and look around you."

There's an art to exploration, and letting your brain and senses really take in and process your environment or a task.

This past week, the governor and his administration declared a statewide STEM Week, encouraging communities and schools to offer different hands-on activities and programs to help students, teachers and families immerse themselves in the collective field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Several Berkshire County groups also went a step further to celebrate STEAM, an acronym that adds the field of art into the interdisciplinary equation. Activities ranged from outdoor exploration to indoor experimentation.

During the nature walk at Ramblewild, Belanger introduced the Hancock Elementary group to the Japanese health practice known as "shinrin-yoku." It translates to "forest bathing," meaning to immerse oneself in the woods and let all the senses be stimulated.

"I'm going to give you an invitation to try something new when you go out into the woods," Belanger said. "This isn't a fitness hike. It's a slow walk. We're going to observe things with our senses and just be there."

A bit of a challenge for energetic children in pre-kindergarten through Grade 3, Belanger offered frequent stops and prompts along the trail. First, she asking them to try and catch a falling leaf, allowing them to run around a bit and focus on a specific task.

Then, she told them to find and describe to the group with three words a rock that's interesting to them. It got the kids to really think about choosing descriptive words, which ranged from "round" and "smooth" to "sharp," "cold" and "reflective."

She also invited the whole group to stand in a circle, facing inward, and to be still "like trees." She asked them to close their eyes and listen for sounds, to visualize the colors of the forest, feel the mix of cool air and warm sunlight on their skin, smell the earthy-sweet sent of the decaying dried leaves beneath their feet. "You can even stick out your tongue and taste the air," she said. And they did.

Last Wednesday, Berkshire/Pioneer Valley STEM Pipeline Network and Flying Cloud Institute partnered with multiple area agencies to host a STEAM Challenge Night at Hancock Shaker Village. The free, public event gave families two hours to tinker and play. Some programmed robots while others built color 3D cardboard sculptures. Others tried a stormwater runoff simulator while others cut up plastic milk cartons, wooden dowels and corks to build a working water wheel. There were also observation stations, beckoning guests to look at fall leaves under a microscope and learn about chemical reactions.

Laura Osorio Delgado, 10, visited STEAM Challenge Night with her 5-year-old brother, Adrian, and mother, Bertha because, "it looked like fun, and I love new challenges, art and science," she said.

Her mother also endorsed the opportunity, saying, "It's good for them to learn something different and fun at the same time. I like that we could get out and be playing and learning somewhere that's not just school."

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