Learning through Healthy Soil and Water

Water testing 019

This year, Prairie Rivers of Iowa is working on a project to assist Iowa’s outdoor classrooms in becoming more effective by researching existing outdoor classrooms in the state, seeking best practices from around the country, and putting together resources and materials for educators who want to create an outdoor classroom in their area.1  You probably also know about our work with area schools through our Kids on the Byway and School and Community Gardens programs.

In honor of National Soil and Water Conservation Week, it’s worth taking a look at the important role that healthy soil and water can play in educating the next generation of Iowa leaders.  Research has shown many benefits result when students are able to experience the natural environment in person as part of their education.  These experiences can help contribute to child development and skill-building, increase fitness and motor skills, and even build creativity and reduce stress.  Outdoor experiences also help increase student success in a whole variety of academic content areas: in science, language arts, math, and other classes, plus on standardized tests.

One really important strain of research indicates that students are very capable of seeing a whole variety of learning environments as related and complementary.  Students can relate what they learn outside, interacting with the natural world, back to what they learn in the traditional classroom, and vice versa.2

This is strong reinforcement for the type of work Prairie Rivers of Iowa does, making connections in the natural world with traditional in-class education.  Rather than being an “extra” to be used only when more important instruction has been provided, outdoor education can be deeply connected to so many other content areas throughout the school day.  The view of outdoor education as only a bonus field trip misses the point that such experiences can be critical for making in-class learning more concrete or for making complex ideas real to students.

Healthy soil and water, whether in outdoor classrooms adjacent to school buildings, in designated natural areas like parks and preserves, or simply in children’s hometowns, are critical for providing opportunities for students to experience nature in all its many “classrooms.”


1This project is supported by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources REAP Conservation Education Program and Iowa’s Living Roadway Trust Fund.

2See Zandvliet, David B.  (2012). Development and validation of the Place-Based Learning and Constructivist Environment Survey (PLACES). Learning Environments Research, 15, 125-140.

Lincoln Highway’s Corridor Management Plan

As you may know, Prairie Rivers of Iowa manages the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway, one of 11 byways in Iowa (a byway is a road specially designated by the United States or by the State of Iowa for its distinctive qualities).  Part of our work along the byway is telling the story of the people and places of the Lincoln Highway, by working to preserve its history, by promoting local businesses and events, and by working with communities and statewide organizations to recognize its unique character.  If you’ve seen us at a motor tour stop, presenting to a community group, or read a Lincoln Highway brochure, you’ve seen some of our work on the byway.

Lincoln Highway Marker with an Abraham Lincoln Medallion and red, white, and blue Lincoln Highway logo

A Lincoln Highway Marker in Story County. Photo © Tom Apgar, Apgar Studios.

Beginning this spring, we are launching a three-year initiative: creating a new Corridor Management Plan for the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway.  A Corridor Management Plan, or CMP, is a document that both reveals the assets of the Lincoln Highway and creates a plan for preserving and strengthening them within the byway’s corridor, or nearby area.

These assets might include the historical features of the byway, including buildings, Lincoln Highway markers, or segments of roadway.  They also might include the significant natural and environmental areas around the roadway, businesses and attractions in byway towns, and community groups that support byway travelers and local residents.

Preserving and strengthening these assets might include developing new plans for interpreting key Lincoln Highway locations for travelers, building up our tools for connecting the Lincoln Highway with Iowa students and teachers, especially focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, planning to enhance the byway traveler’s experience statewide, identifying creative Lincoln Highway projects in communities, and more.

You’ll notice I’ve said “might” several times.  The key part about creating a CMP is that it is truly a community-based plan.  Later this year, we will be beginning a series of public conversations across the state with people like you, people who care about the Lincoln Highway and its communities.  Together, we’ll decide on the important assets for each segment of the Lincoln Highway and the strategies for strengthening those assets.  You can learn more about the CMP process on Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s website.

Since this is the beginning of a conversation, let’s start talking.  I invite you to sign up for our mailing list so you can learn about the latest CMP news and find out about meetings and presentations in your community.  Please also consider contacting me to discuss the CMP in more detail or to learn how you might get more involved, especially as a volunteer or community leader.  You can reach me at lincolncmp@prrcd.org or 515-216-4005.  Together, we can help build a Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway for the next 100 years!