Four Winds puts nature in kids' hands

Tuesday December 18, 2012


Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Lisa Flynn's third grade classroom at Bennington Elementary was abuzz as students carefully inspected skulls of different creatures. Students took in the size and weight of each skull as they turned them over in their hands and examined the teeth to determine whether the skulls belonged to herbivores or carnivores.

Flynn is actually in the middle of an astronomy unit with her students, but the stars took a back seat to skulls and teeth Monday as volunteers through the Four Winds Program Nature Institute brought their own lesson. Four Winds, which has volunteers in many of the area elementary schools, is a nonprofit organization that teaches children natural science through community-based lessons.

Students stared as Ken Swierad and David Burhans taught them about the different teeth creatures have and the purpose of them. A brief description of the incisors, canines and molars was illustrated by a puppet show (as Four Winds lessons always are) before the children got to test what they learned. After carrots and popcorn were given to each child, they were asked to begin eating and think about how they were chewing, what their different teeth were used for, and then think about why teeth come in different shapes and sizes.

The eight- and nine-year-old children then applied what they learned about their own teeth when looking at skulls of other animals.

In small groups, children were tasked with identifying whether the skull came from a dog, deer or rodent family based on their teeth.

"If you look at an animal's teeth you can tell what its diet is," Swierad told the children.

In addition to learning how animals use their teeth, students also learned other facts about them. They were shocked to hear a beaver's front teeth grow four feet a year. Because beavers' teeth get filed down on wood they are generally no longer than an inch, but when Burhans held up a yard stick, and then a ruler taped to it, students looked in amazement thinking about how long the teeth would be if they were not filed down.

Swierad, a retired teacher who is also chairman of the Bennington School District board, has been doing Four Winds lessons in Bennington Elementary for years as a way to continue working with children. Volunteers receive training through the Four Winds Nature Institute, which is the only cost of the program.

"The kids love it. That's why I do it," Swierad said.

Flynn agreed that the science lessons are a highlight of the students' learning.

"It's great. It changes it up a bit. They like the variety and the hands-on," Flynn said. "(The students) always look forward to them coming."

To learn more about Four Winds, visit

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi


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