Give a group of fourth graders an opportunity to make a wish and they are likely to come up with everything imaginable.
From “I wish for nature to be forever” to “I wish for a million dollars.”
And everything in between: “I wish money to grow on trees.”
A group of University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students spent an afternoon this week learning just that—and much, much more—as part of the Nature Connection program and their Quest III class led by Shannon Davis-Foust, senior environmental studies and biology lecturer.
The program brings together students in her two sections of the course with students from the nearby Read Elementary School multiple times throughout the semester. The UW Oshkosh students and the third and fourth graders turn natural outdoor areas around campus into classrooms to learn about the local environment and principles of science. The UWO students help the children learn about local plants and animals, habitats, life cycles, the web of life, the water cycle and more.
Part of Monday’s gathering between fourth graders and their “college friends,” as they’re called, included the creation of a campus wish tree.
The concept of a wish tree is present in many cultures, Davis-Foust said, and it’s also an idea in a popular children’s book. She read Katherine Applegate’s 2017 best-seller Wishtree with her own daughter and many of the third and fourth graders also are familiar with it.
The activity is simple: Each student takes a small strip of cloth, uses a marker to write a wish on it, then ties it to a tree branch. So in the end the tree—in this case a white oak north of the Theatre Arts Center—is decorated with colorful strips of fabric and the wishes of dozens of children.
Because of the day’s subject matter, students were urged to think about what they were learning and wish for something related. (But, of course, some still went for the million bucks.)
Jenna Johnson, a junior English education major from Two Rivers, said her favorite part of the day of activities was working with the children on the wish tree.
“Each kid got to write their wish, which was really cool because at first it was things like ‘I want a new Xbox’ or ‘I want a new game station,’” she said, “and it’s like OK, but think about the Earth. And then they get to ‘I wish people would stop cutting down trees,’ ‘I wish all the animals had enough food to be fed.’ So it’s really nice to get them thinking outside of their box a little bit.”
The students have a list of activities to complete throughout the day. Among them are a scavenger hunt, where they seek out a variety of things found in nature. They also get to know five trees, which includes identifying the type of tree, estimating its height and age, and learning what insects or animals might live in or around it.
“And if they’re good they get to make a wish,” Davis-Foust said with a laugh. “So I tell them if they’re naughty their college friends aren’t going to let them make a wish. That keeps them in line a little bit.”
The biology Quest III course, titled Ecosphere in Crisis, is focused on sustainability, and the Nature Connection program was developed as part of the University Studies Program.
“We’re taking what we’ve already learned in class—because our topic is sustainability—so we’re taking that and we are breaking it down for the kids on a fundamental level so they can better understand it and appreciate our planet and nature and why it’s important,” Johnson said. “A lot of these kids have made comments like we never get to go outside … It’s providing a safe, structured space for the kids to explore outside.”
Students beginning college at UWO take Quest I and Quest II in their first year. In Quest III courses students extend their classroom into a community setting, working with a local nonprofit, community group or, as in this case, a campus partner. The experience allows students to apply their classroom learning to a real-world practical experience and return to the classroom with a higher proficiency.
Keegan Schuelke, a sophomore business major from Appleton, said one of the challenges of the day is taking what he and his fellow UWO students have learned this semester and then simplifying it so the younger students can get a handle on it.
The little ones most enjoyed the scavenger hunt and the wish tree, he said. “I thought the best part was seeing the kids get so excited about something they hope comes true, especially about trees, helping the trees.”