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Hands-On Learning 🙌

by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II

Wilson's Warbler in Oak's hand.

You may have heard the term “hands-on learning” and wondered what it means. At Thorne Nature Experience we try to give kids the chance to actually work with their hands in the process of discovering nature. This can also be called “learning by doing.”

I remember when I was a little boy that I loved to go outside and play in the rain. I would see how the rainwater was flowing along our gravel road and I would make little dams to divert the flow in different directions. This was indeed a hands-on activity. I was actually learning about the physics of water flow.

As I got older, I became very interested in birds. I would find their nests and then try to figure out what kind of bird it was that built each nest. I would see how the birds behaved and I would often hear them sing. I soon learned to identify each kind of bird just by hearing their song. Even though I was using my eyes and ears, I still consider this to be hands-on learning because I was making first-hand observations of real birds in nature. I then learned about many other kinds of birds from my high school biology teacher.

In 1950, when I was a junior in college, I was able to get the job of doing a breeding bird census of the Audubon Center in Greenwich, Connecticut, during the month of June. This was done entirely “by ear.” I would get up at 4 a.m. and be out and ready to count by the break of dawn. Only the male bird sings, so I would record the number of singing males, each one indicating a breeding pair of that species. I covered 20 acres a day. The Center was 360 acres, so it took me 18 mornings to complete the entire census.

When I was 13, my biology teacher had me banding my very first bird. Bird banding is really a hands-on activity! We caught wild birds in little hardware cloth (wire mesh) cages baited with seed. Then we opened aluminum bands and closed them around the bird's leg like a bracelet. Each band has a special combination of numbers, so it is like a license plate. No other bird has the exact same numbers on its band, so we or others can always identify that particular bird. All our data was sent to a master database at the Bird Banding Laboratory (BBL) in Laurel, Maryland, run by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

When I was 18 and about to go to college, my biology teacher felt that I should have my own bird banding permit, so he wrote a letter recommending me to the BBL and I indeed got my own permit, which I still have to this day! I now teach a class in bird banding as part of Thorne's Summer Camp program. Our students are 12-16 years old. We catch wild birds in walk-in traps baited with seed or in mist nets. Mist nets come in different lengths and open to about seven feet in height. We stretch them between two tall poles. Our students learn how to remove a bird from the trap or net, to open a band and close it around a bird's leg using special pliers, and then release the bird back into the wild.

One of our favorite kind of birds to band is the Cliff Swallow. These birds are colonial nesters, which means that they build their mud nests right next to each other in large groups. They especially like to build their nests in road culverts, where a stream goes under a highway. If there are a 100 nests inside a culvert, then there are 200 swallows flying in and out of that culvert. We drop a mist net across the culvert opening and usually catch from 10 to 30 swallows at a time! Cliff Swallows eat flying insects, so they have to migrate south after nesting in order to find this food. They go all the way to southern Brazil and Argentina in South America during our winter. It's exciting to catch one of our swallows the following summer and know that it has made this long round trip!

You should now have a good idea of what I mean by hands-on learning. I hope that you have already learned many things this way. It's a great way to learn!

Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check or e-mail or call (303) 499-3647.

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